Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

Adventure

Overlord (R)

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Directed by: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo
November 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


They say honesty is the best policy. In that case, I need to be honest from the start…this isn’t my kind of movie. But if I’m being totally honest, I feel like I’ve been the victim of a bait and switch. When I signed up to review this movie, I thought Overlord, the J.J. Abrams produced WWII tale, was going to be a straightforward action movie. Then I saw the trailer and thought, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” The movie’s premise is straightforward…a group of American soldiers parachute into France on the eve of D-Day. Their objective is simple; sneak into a French village under the cover of darkness and take out the radio tower that sits atop a church building. However, when the American soldiers infiltrate the church, they discover many living and dead people who’ve been mutated by evil alchemy in a makeshift dungeon. To accomplish their mission, the American troops must engage in a series of gun battles with Nazis while evading the fast-moving zombies that lurk in the claustrophobic corridors of the church. From that brief description of the story, you’ve guessed right that Overlord is a mash-up of Saving Private Ryan and I Am Legend. Although the story has some semblance of a plot, the novelty of its premise wears thin around the movie’s midpoint. Writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith weave their paltry plot among the tapestry of overblown action sequences and zombie brawls. Overlord is directed by Julius Avery, a virtual unknown who has directed only one other feature-length film. The cast is populated with newcomers, bit players, and journeyman character actors with nary a star among the bunch. Other than the intrigue of its story, Abrams’ name is the movie’s only real draw. The movie’s theme is as obvious as its premise: the dangers of playing God. Though taken to unrealistic extremes, you can totally see how Hitler would sanction such a diabolical plan to create super-soldiers. The “1,000 Years of the Reich” program is an interesting concept, but the zombie subplot is flagrant revisionist history and is only in the story to provide thrills and chills for the audience. Overlord has an excessive amount of violence, swearing and disturbing images. Aside from its myriad shoot-outs between Nazis and American forces, the movie also contains a graphic torture scene and two attempted rapes. We catch glimpses of disfigured and mutated humans inside the cells in the church’s basement. The surgery room contains mutilated cadavers and several experiments gone wrong, like a talking woman who has only a head and spinal column (which is much more macabre than the initial image of the bodiless Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact). The mutation process, when human subjects are turned into zombies, is quite hideous. Another horrific scene is when corpses (failed experiments) are carted out of the church, dumped into a ditch and incinerated with a flamethrower. Those with a weak stomach have been forewarned. One area of the movie that’s commendable is its production. From the opening CG shot of the Allied fleet to the pyrotechnics and FX, to the costumes and creature makeup, Overlord is a well-crafted movie. It’s to Avery’s credit that he only sparingly resorts to standard horror movie gimmicks, like characters suddenly appearing in front of the camera to startle the audience. In the final analysis, Overlord is a war/horror hybrid that’s unabashedly graphic. From start to finish, the movie is gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. Though Overlord is a unique film, it certainly isn’t a great one.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Ant-Man and the Wasp (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd
July 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


One of the subplots in the first Ant-Man (2015) revealed that scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) lost his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) when she went subatomic to disable a Soviet nuclear missile, a heroic deed that relegated her to being tossed about inside the swirling maelstrom of the quantum realm for all eternity. The sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, opens with that fateful mission (these archival clips from the first film set the tone for the sequel’s rehashed sameness), which effectively kicks off the action and establishes the movie’s premise as a straightforward rescue tale. Since the last film, Hank has been busy building a quantum tunnel. Hank prevails upon Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to enter the subatomic dimension and rescue Janet. Other than a few character beats and a handful of action sequences, that’s pretty much the whole plot in a nutshell. The Ant-Man franchise is like the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel universe. Compared to the Avengers series, this film feels downright low budget. Like Scott, who is under house arrest (a story element that quickly tires), the movie is firmly moored to its San Francisco locations. Whether intentional or not, the film’s insular framework is symbolic of the confinement Scott and Janet have been forced to endure. The story by Rudd and four other writers is rote and seems more like an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than a big budget summer tentpole. With a dearth of character development and reheated dialog, the movie’s central figures are merely caricatures of themselves, especially Luis (Michael Pena), whose one-liners are as stale as last week’s pizza. The rest of the actors do what they can with mediocre material. This is a sad fact since the movie boasts some impressive actors, including: Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer and Laurence Fishburne. For this outing, Scott is joined by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who takes her mother’s mantle as the Wasp. Other than watching the duo kick some major tuchus in a couple action scenes, the only aspect of the film that’s enjoyable is the loving relationship between Scott and his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The homemade ant farm inside the house is a creative and thoroughly enjoyable scene. Another clever concept is how Hank’s lab can shrink down to the size of a milk crate so that it can be transported to another locale and enlarged back to its skyscraper proportions. The mobile tower concept was also used to great effect in the fantasy/sci-fi cult classic Krull (1983). The FX inside the quantum realm are a major disappointment…any decently produced TV show can achieve, and in many cases supersede, these multicolor miasma effects. The blurry ghost image employed whenever Ava/Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) time shifts is a really well conceived and executed visual effect. In the end, Ant 2 is a safe and predictable follow-up to the first film, which was a surprise hit. The only surprise here is how uninspired the story is. For Ant-Man 3, Marvel had better step up its game. Otherwise, they might discover that, like their titular hero, the audience can shrink too.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise
July 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Even though this is the sixth movie in the series, Mission: Impossible - Fallout has many firsts. This is the first MI movie to be released in 3-D (RealD 3D). Christopher McQuarrie has become the first MI director to call the shots on more than one film in the franchise. And while on the subject of firsts, Rebecca Ferguson, who plays MI6 agent Ilsa Faust, is the first female to appear twice in a leading role in a MI film (also noteworthy is that she was pregnant while filming her scenes). At age 56, Tom Cruise is in amazing physical shape and still looks credible as an action star (unlike Roger Moore in his later James Bond movies). Cruise’s devotion to his craft is remarkable and his stamina is undeniable, especially since he continues to do most of his own stunts. Cruise trained for a year in order to pull off the HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) parachute jump in the movie. Since the scene takes place near sunset, Cruise and crew could only attempt one jump per day. With the assistance of a C-17 military aircraft and a ground crew to create a vertical wind tunnel, Cruise made over one hundred jumps at 25,000 feet just to deliver three shots for McQuarrie to use in the film. Now that’s dedication! Not all of Cruise’s stunts were successful, though. In a scene where he jumps from one building to another, Cruise fractured his ankle, which delayed shooting for nearly two months. Weighing in at 2 hours and 27 minutes, MI6 has a longer running time than any previous film in the series. Unfortunately, it’s about 27 minutes too long. That comment is no disparagement of the movie’s action sequences, which are innovative, wildly entertaining and, along with Cruise and Henry Cavill, the main draw of the film. If MI6 were to be judged solely on its high-octane action scenes, it would be a 4 star film. However, in a summer blockbuster jam-packed with mind-blowing stunts, it’s easy to mistake spectacle for quality. Despite having some of the finest pulse-pounding stunts in the entire series, this is a lesser MI film, thanks to McQuarrie’s flaccid screenplay. The passé premise (the 80s spy movies called and want their plutonium back), trite dialog (“Family…what can you do?”) and languid storytelling (especially in the early stages of the film) are all narrative ailments the film can’t quite overcome. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have a plot…it does; a very straightforward, predictable and contrived one. People from Hunt’s past pop up at regular intervals with little explanation or preamble. Erica Sloan’s (Angela Bassett) backhanded comment about IMF agents treating every day like Halloween is amusing and incisive. Ironically, the movie fails to take its own hint since the mask gag is overused here. The down-to-the-last-second bomb disarming is a hackneyed story element that, thankfully, is delivered with a little self-reflexive humor here. McQuarrie trots out the tired “mole inside the operation” plot device in an effort to muddle the motivations of Hunt (Cruise) and Walker (Cavill), but the shocking reveal is obvious from the start. And why did Hunt and Walker have to parachute from a high altitude (a similar sequence appears in 2009s Star Trek), through a lightning storm no less, just to land on the roof of a Parisian building they could’ve gained access to with a proper disguise? Maybe it’s because we get a show-stopping stunt sequence out of the deal or because the rapid plummet ties in with the movie’s title—the theme of personal and physical descent permeates the story. All things considered, MI6 is a decent actioner with solid performances, stellar directing and mind-blowing cinematography. The location work, particularly the scenes shot in London, Paris and the United Arab Emirates, is truly exceptional and effectively simulates the continent-hopping narrative of a James Bond film. The one thing the MI films have consistently done right, and probably one of the major reasons why people keep turning out to see them, is that each new film ups the ante with its jaw-dropping, gravity-defying stunts and action scenes (like a modern-day Houdini, Cruise is a magician who keeps topping his previous death-defying feats). The last half hour of this film contains a chain of top-notch, heart-stopping action beats that will literally leave you gasping for air. If you can get past the “same ole” plot elements, MI6 is a riveting, thrilling popcorn flick that ends with a cliff-hanger and seems destined to be followed by another sequel.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Adrift (PG-13)

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Shailene Woodley
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Based on an incredible true story, Adrift recounts the harrowing tale of how Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) kept herself alive for 41 days on the open sea. A romance/survival movie, the story bounces back and forth in time between terrifying present and torrid past. Months before she finds herself stranded at sea, Tami meets and falls in love with Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin). The two adventure-seekers decide to sail around the world together and unwittingly steer right into one of the worst hurricanes in recorded history—the shot of the small boat climbing the giant wave looks like it was borrowed from The Perfect Storm (2000). Woodley excels in a physically and emotionally demanding performance. It’s been reported that she subsisted on just 350 calories a day in order to look the part of an emaciated sea storm survivor. Whereas Woodley’s acting can’t be faulted, the screenplay by Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell and David Branson Smith didn’t give the star much to work with. Even though most stories of this kind, i.e. Cast Away (2000), have a dearth of dialog, Woodley’s lines largely consist of “Woo hoos!” or “No, no, no, @?&!” for the majority of the film. The biggest problem with the movie is that the romance subplot feels foisted on the audience and isn’t nearly strong enough to support this kind of lost at sea tale, which has been done many times before in cinema history: Lifeboat (1944), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), Life of Pi (2012) and Unbroken (2014) to name just a few. One disaster movie where the romance did effectively anchor the story was Titanic (1997). There’s an indirect reference to that film when Tina delivers a line that’s the reverse of Rose’s (Kate Winslet) “I’ll never let go, Jack.” In the end, the movie’s predictability holds it back from having a greater impact. As things stand, Adrift has joined the ranks of inspiring, yet standard and safe, biopics.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Avengers: Infinity War (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
April 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The old adage about the third time being the charm certainly holds true for Avengers: Infinity War, the third film in the series and arguably the finest Marvel film to date. So what was the difference-maker here? Story. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely pulls together the threads of myriad storylines from the back catalog of Marvel films and manages to give each of the heroes a piece of the narrative pie amid a sprawling, planet-hopping adventure. Although character development (which was at least attempted in the individual spotlight films) is tenuous in most cases, the one individual who is fleshed out is villain Thanos (Josh Brolin). Due to his formidable physique, Thanos is an intimidating antagonist in the mold of Darth Vader. However, what makes Thanos a fully-realized villain is that he has genuine motivations stemming from a surprisingly sympathetic backstory. From the moment his home planet was ravaged, Thanos has been desperately searching for the six Infinity Stones, which will give him the ability to regenerate his world. The bad news is that Thanos’ plan will wipe out half the life-forms in the universe. This wide-scale culling has some shocking repercussions at the end of the film, which contains a heart-stopping The Empire Strikes Back (1980) style cliffhanger. Thanos’ galactic scavenger hunt provides an engaging story structure that makes the sundry action scenes and character moments cohere. Many of the film’s passages approach epic status; proof positive that Marvel has perfected the formula for its flagship property. However, for all its achievements, Infinity certainly has its fair share of flaws. For starters, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is completely out of character in the movie (that ridiculous mustache means he’s from the Mirror Universe, right?) and squanders the team’s best chance at defeating Thanos with his thirst for revenge. Also, Vision (Paul Bettany) is a total wuss—isn’t he supposed to possess god-like powers? Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is far more powerful in the film and ends up saving Vision on countless occasions. And where’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)? Or Everett Ross (Martin Freeman)? Granted, with the ever-expanding stable of Marvel heroes, it’s nearly impossible to service everyone. Although the story is a fairly strong chain, there are a few weak links. For instance, wizard Wong (Benedict Wong) magically transports a gigantic assailant to a glacial wasteland at the end of a massive melee. So why didn’t he just do that at the beginning of the battle to forestall the large-scale destruction and to prevent Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) from being abducted? Contrived! Another bit of weak scripting involves the Wakanda storyline when Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) orders the shield to be opened, which allows an army of creatures to flood inside the dome. Panther does this to prevent the creatures from overloading the wall near Vision’s position, which is flawed logic. Why not just redeploy troops to defend that part of the wall? Since a percentage of the creatures are being cut in half by the dome, it doesn’t make sense to open the door and let them all in. Fighting part of an army is better than fighting all of the army, right? Somehow this basic logic escaped the writers. The introduction scenes are a lot of fun, especially the meeting between Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Strange. It’s gratifying to see how their instant antipathy gradually morphs into “professional courtesy.” Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is handled masterfully in the movie. Banner is constantly at odds with himself and his alter ego. The question of who’s controlling whom takes a fascinating twist here: up to this point, Banner has had a hard time turning Hulk off, now he struggles to turn him on. Infinity is one of the rare Marvel experiences where the story holds its own against the top-notch, mind-blowing FX. This has created a serious challenge for the sequel, which will have to find a way to live up to this film. If IW2 is anything like this movie, we’re in for a treat.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Chris Pratt
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


What we witnessed in Jurassic World (2015) was the fruition of John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) and Benjamin Lockwood’s (James Cromwell, who is egregiously underserved in this film) dream—a functioning dinosaur park filled with attractions, rides and, of course, gift shops. But midway through that movie, life found a way and the dinos started eating the tourists. At the beginning of the sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the park lies in ruins and the remaining dinos are being threatened by a violent volcano that will soon incinerate the island. As experts on the dinos, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are prevailed upon to help with the rescue effort. But the dino extraction goes south when a joint military (led by Ken Wheatley, Monk’s Ted Levine) and scientific (funded by greedy industrialist Eli Mills, played by Rafe Spall) operation brings the animals back to the mainland in a storyline that has far too many similarities to The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). The caged dinos are auctioned off (quite expertly by Toby Jones) to extremely rich and “discriminating” buyers. When a new hybrid species is introduced, the Indominus Rex crossed with Raptor “Indoraptor,” the bidders leverage their fortunes to own the priceless prototype dino. Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) protests, stating that the creature isn’t for sale, but Eli arrogantly quips, “Relax, we’ll make some more.” Of course, this “lack of humility before nature” is the cue for all hell to break loose…as it always does in the Jurassic films. JW2 retains many “popcorn” elements and actually has a plot…and message. Though the animal trafficking (and human/sex trafficking by extension) subplot is drilled home pretty hard, there’s also a subtle warning about how the dinos might be used for their biopharmaceutical properties. This opens up some fascinating and frightening possibilities. Could we discover new cures to diseases and make major advancements in medicine by studying the dinos? Could such knowledge also lead to the creation of virulent stains of chemical and bioweapons? As Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, who makes a brief cameo here) states in the film, “We’re causing our own extinction.” In an unexpected twist, Eli refers to Owen and Claire as the “parents of the future” since Claire authorized the creation of the Indominus Rex and Owen successfully trained raptors. This is a compelling outsider’s perspective on how their actions have unintentionally produced results antithetical to their beliefs. In essence, they’ve created their own monster. There are numerous allusions to the earlier films here, like the helicopter’s journey to the island, the side view mirror etched with “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear” (though, symbolically, the words are upside down this time) and the T-Rex’ triumphant bellow. There’s also a clever series of shots where the camera focuses on a character’s feet and then pans up. The first instance is when Claire is wearing high heels and the next is when she arrives on the island in boots. This corrects a major criticism of the previous film which had Claire running around the park in high heels. There are some fun scenes, like when the head-butting Stygimoloch sends party guests flying through the air as if they were gored by a bull, and some terrifying moments, like the Nosferatu (1922) style shot of the Indoraptor’s claw slowly reaching for the little girl hiding in her bed. In the end, JW2 is a surprisingly poignant chapter in the Jurassic saga that features far fewer gratuitous dino chases and more meaty and thought-provoking examinations of human greed and our irresistible need to play god. The way things end in JW2, JW3 may take place in your neighborhood.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Deadpool 2 (R)

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Directed by: David Leitch
Starring: Ryan Reynolds
May 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


In Deadpool 2, the eponymous foul-mouthed superhero has returned to bring us a family film, or so he claims at the beginning of the movie. Don’t believe him. Even though writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and some douche named Ryan Reynolds have toned down the violence and double entendres, the movie is still a bloody, crass, irreverent wad of inappropriateness. An early romance storyline quickly yields to a series of action sequences as the movie struggles to find its narrative footing. It isn’t until the Mystery Men (1999) style superhero tryout that the film begins to come into focus. The sequence is an absolute hoot, especially the heated exchange over whether or not luck should be considered a superpower. The debate is soon settled when Domino (Zazie Beetz) assists Deadpool in fending off some thugs…an amusing and unique action sequence which is basically Murphy’s Law in reverse. Josh Brolin, fresh off his stint as villain Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, is the movie’s wild card and adds some much-needed heft and complexity to the film. Another pivotal character is Firefist (Julian Dennison), a young orphan who possesses powers he can’t control; which makes him equal parts innocent kid and unpredictable threat. In an obvious indictment against the Catholic Church, Firefist has been taken advantage of by the religious headmaster (Eddie Marsan) at a school for boys. Though you have to dig through the rubble to find it, this is the only real message in the film—i.e. the heinous sexual abuse of minors at many such institutions. Of course, there are plenty of humorous scenes in the film, like the fate of Wade’s new team on their first mission and when Wade grows back his legs after being ripped in half by Juggernaut. The action scenes, filmed with numerous Matrix-style slo-mo sequences, are well executed by director David Leitch. In particular, the sequence where Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and Juggernaut slug it out reaches near epic proportions. The end credits scenes, where Wade uses a time machine to rectify the mistakes of the past (like when Reynolds first picked up the Green Lantern script) are the highlight of the film. Final analysis: D2 isn’t as crass or graphic as the first film, but isn’t as funny or clever either. Reynolds’ shtick is wearing pretty thin at this point (especially the VO narrations and frequent instances of breaking the fourth wall). The series needs to evolve; otherwise it might end up resembling its title. Not the pool part.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Incredibles 2 (PG)

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Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson
June 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


While waiting to watch Incredibles 2, I detected an insidious pattern in the previews. For The Lego Movie 2, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) admits that she almost singlehandedly saved the world in the first movie, but that Emmet (Chris Pratt) took all the credit. The next trailer was for Wreck-It Ralph 2. In a telling scene, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) stumbles into a room full of Disney princesses who initially question her right to join them until they identify with her plight; people always assume that all of Vanellope’s problems will be solved as soon as a big, strong man shows up. When the feature presentation finally started, I thought for sure the anti-male bias was over—surely Pixar wouldn’t stoop to such shameless sexism, right? Wrong. It would appear that the sentiments behind the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have now infiltrated kids’ movies…and that makes me mad. For a detailed diatribe of my stance against movies that seek to indoctrinate children with partisan political views, read my review of Happy Feet. Suffice it to say, unhealthy stereotypes of men are everywhere now, even in typically high-quality, high class Pixar pics. Case in point is Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). If we thought Bob was emasculated at the beginning of first film as the deskbound, pencil pushing cube dweller, imagine how worthless he feels when his wife Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets a crime fighting gig and he’s left at home to raise the kids Mr. Mom style. When Bob’s efforts to take care of his three kids go up in smoke (as a former accountant, he can’t even teach his son math because it’s “new math”), he reaches out to friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) for advice and prevails upon costume designer Edna (Brad Bird) to babysit Jack-Jack. Particularly disturbing is the cost analysis scene, which flags Mr. Incredible as an extreme insurance risk. The analytics reveal that Elastigirl (woman) completes her missions without bending a blade of grass, while Mr. Incredible (man) inflicts massive damage while attempting to defeat villains. Men are characterized as blundering buffoons who just can’t help but destroy everything in their path (much like Wreck-It Ralph or Hulk). So then, if Bob is a failure as a father and a superhero, what good is he? The last player in the NFL draft is referred to as Mr. Irrelevant. In I2, Bob Parr isn’t Mr. Incredible, he’s Mr. Irrelevant. Bob is the exemplar of the scores of men who’ve been sidelined and debased. Will it get to the point where men are nothing more than laborers and lovers in a matriarchal society, as was depicted in Gene Roddenberry’s Planet Earth (1974)? Time and societal evolution will tell, but as for now, we’re on the verge of the systematic censure, deconstruction and endangerment of the male of the species. Aside from gender roles, the movie also gets political when it deals with the integration of the Supers back into society; a topic that could relate to refugees from the Middle East, illegals pouring over the border from Mexico or even the way the LGBT community is being assimilated into the broader populace. The movie also makes thinly-veiled commentary about our growing screen obsession. Staring at one of villain Screenslaver’s hypnotic patterns can override a person’s will and make them highly susceptible to committing evil acts. Walk into any public place and you’ll see people with their faces buried in screens, in essence hypnotized by onscreen content and completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. The parallel is obvious; the solution isn’t. It’s ironic that this problem was in its initial stages when The Incredibles was released in 2004. Despite its broad spectrum of commentary, the film does have some fun, although not nearly as much as the original. Even though the scenes with Jack-Jack are the highlight of the film, the tyke is given far too many superpowers and the various applications of those powers are way overplayed, usually to generate laughs. Syndrome (Jason Lee) is a far superior antagonist to Screenslaver, whose identity is obvious from the start. There are several new characters here including: salesman Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), inventor Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), Voyd (Sophia Bush), Krushauer (Phil LaMarr), Reflux (Paul Eiding), Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) and Ambassador (Isabella Rosellini). As with the first movie, Brad Bird wrote and directed I2. So is I2 worth the wait (14 years)? It pains me to say that I2 fails to capture the first film’s unbridled creativity and off-the-wall exhilaration…and fun. Though I2 is entertaining, it certainly isn’t incredible.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Solo: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

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Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich
May 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
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While trying to find his long-lost girlfriend, a brash, young pilot falls in with a band of thieves, a self-styled gambler and a gigantic shaggy creature.

The Evaluation:

In the wake of the polarizing debacle known as
The Last Jedi (2017), Star Wars fans from Coruscant to Tatooine were filled with trepidation over the new character spotlight film, Solo: A Star Wars Story. Those concerns were certainly justified in light of Solo’s turbulent genesis; directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie) were replaced by Ron Howard six months into the production. Also tempering fan expectations were pre-release rumors that Disney had already written the film off as a loss. Tremors in the Force notwithstanding, the resultant film is a well-acted, well-directed tale that somehow manages to underwhelm despite its lavish ($250 million dollar) production. Not only is Solo a return to the universe we know and love, it’s also a radical departure from the timbre, texture and tropes of every other cinematic SW adventure. First and foremost, Solo is an origin story for one of the most popular characters in the SW panoply, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). We witness Han’s heartbreaking separation from the love of his life, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). We have a front row seat for the initial meetings between Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), a scene that echoes their reunion in Return of the Jedi (but is far more violent), and Han and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). We get to see how Han makes the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs and it makes sense…sort of. We also see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a game of sabacc during the anticlimactic denouement. During this disingenuous scene, Han claims that his victory is “fair and square” despite the fact that he owes Lando a ship from when he lost a game earlier in the movie. But perhaps Han’s debt is cancelled after he repeatedly saves Lando’s life. At its core, Solo is a heist movie. Some of the action set pieces are spectacular, like the freight train caper on arctic planet Vandor 1, and the teeth-jarring journey through the Kessel maelstrom, which looks like it was borrowed from the “final frontier.” As a story centered on smugglers, pirates and sinister syndicate tycoons, the look of the film is appropriately grimy, gritty and seedy. Howard takes a bulldozer to Lucas’ “lived-in universe” and then covers it in mud, snow and sand. Though Howard’s monochromatic palette is a sly way of matching style with subject matter, the movie is drab for the sake for being drab. Character’s faces are flat and washed out (with low saturation and little if any contrast) throughout the entire movie and even outdoor scenes are shot during overcast conditions. This dim and dreary aesthetic, which will surely be lauded by critics as a triumph of formalism, actually detracts from the film’s enjoyment since it requires spectators to squint through long stretches of the movie just to make out what’s transpiring onscreen. Still, the directorial virtuosity on display here is astounding, and, in many respects, surpasses the finest efforts of the franchise’s stable of high-profile directors. Though it blazes a bold, new trail for the saga, Solo will go down as more of a miss than a hit. Ironically, as a movie riddled with obligatory allusions, Solo is a heist yarn where the story sabotages itself.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Howard’s insight serves him well in his first foray into the SW universe. His direction is sure-handed and reveals a sensitivity and reverence toward the existing canon that was largely missing from Last Jedi. As an Academy Award-winning director, Howard’s acumen, experience and vision are evident in every frame of the film. Other than the movie’s lighting (see: Cinematography), I have no qualms with Howard’s direction. You might say that the circle is now complete since Howard, who was but a learner in Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), has taken his first step into Lucas’ much larger world as an undeniable master of his craft. One wonders if the director had a hand in casting Paul Bettany (who co-starred in Howard’s A Beautiful Mind) to play villain Dryden Vos. There can be little doubt that he was involved in casting his brother, Clint, to play Ralakili.

Acting- While on the subject of casting, each actor perfectly embodies the part they were selected to play. Ehrenreich has Han’s insouciant, devil-may-care attitude down pat. Glover, however, pushes his portrayal of Lando too far—Billy Dee Williams was charming and confidant while Glover has too much swagger and is frequently annoying. Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett is one of the most complex and refreshingly realistic characters in any SW film. Clarke also delivers a well-measured performance as a misfortunate young woman forced into servitude by nefarious criminals. Sadly, Thandie Newton’s Val is a disposable side character who has little impact on the story. Another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part is Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), who looks like a supersized version of an Alien chestburster. Longtime SW performers, Warwick Davis and Anthony Daniels (trivia: this is the first SW film sans droids R2-D2 and C-3PO), have brief cameos here. The most interesting new face in the cast is Erin Kellyman, who plays the leader of the Cloud-Riders, Enfys Nest.

Story- Even though Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan have delivered a unique vision of the SW universe, their script contains some significant problems. Solo is so preoccupied with cramming quotes and references from the earlier (later chronologically) movies into its narrative that the paint-by-numbers plot (i.e., “and here’s where Han meets Chewie,” etc.) consistently upstages the original story concepts. Some elements work well, like the significance of Han’s dice (which is a nice tie-in with Last Jedi), and others don’t, like how Han comes by his last name. It’s clear that the Kasdan’s have a firm handle on both SW lore and crime films. However, their twisty plot is as clear as Mimban mud and the ending is far too obtuse and protracted. And speaking of protracted, the film (which runs 2 hours and 15 minutes), is way too long. Cutting some of the chatting and gambling scenes would’ve shortened the film and made it tighter all at the same time. The gasp-inducing cameo after the final confrontation is the highlight of the movie—the only time we feel any genuine terror. But the thrill quickly abates and the potentially exhilarating storyline goes absolutely nowhere…a microcosmic description of the entire film. Still, Solo is an enjoyable respite from Jedis, lightsaber battles and the Force. There’s more to the SW universe than these elements, as Solo ably demonstrates.

Costumes/Make-up- The costumes are well-tailored, particularly those seen at Vos’ reception and inside the various gambling establishments.

Cinematography- Bradford Young does fine work for the action sequences and establishing shots on the various planets, especially the Falcon’s bumpy landing on Savareen. However, the overall look of the film is bland and lacks color and saturation (see: The Evaluation), a stylistic decision that also falls at the feet of Howard. None of the characters are lit by direct sunlight or any kind of fill light (reflectors) during the entire movie. This flat lighting scheme is unwittingly the perfect choice for a movie almost entirely populated with cardboard characters. And like the characters themselves, the film has no light or dark side…only shades of gray. The lighting design is tantamount to a dimly-lit smuggler’s den, which is fitting when considering the movie’s milieu.

Music- One of the highlights of the film is John Powell’s (Jason Bourne) soundtrack, which is filled with several beautiful, sweeping melodies and makes judicious use of the existing back catalog of SW themes.

Visual FX- Exceptional, as would be expected. The sequence where the squid-like creature is slowly sucked into the maelstrom’s maw is breathtaking. The train hijacking scenes are extremely well storyboarded and executed. In a franchise first, we’re treated to a really nice POV shot from the back seat of the Millennium Falcon as it enters hyperspace. The tableau of a star destroyer surrounded by the maelstrom’s swirling gases is another strong visual composition.

Production Values- Top-notch and top dollar, as would be expected for a Disney tent pole. No problems here.

Movie Magic- Though certain aspects of Han’s origin story and some of the action sequences are thrilling, much of the movie is plodding and dull. Solo’s serious tone makes it a respectable film, but certainly not a fun one. But that’s okay, because this is just A Star Wars Story, not a major trilogy film. As such, Solo has successfully expanded the saga while tiding us over until Episode IX.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Show Dogs (PG)

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Directed by: Raja Gosnell
Starring: Will Arnett
May 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

In order to track down a gang of animal smugglers, a macho police dog must go undercover as a contestant in a prestigious dog show.

The Evaluation:

The movie opens in NYC, as police dog Max (voiced by rapper Ludacris) prepares to pounce on some animal thieves and rescue a caged panda. A FBI agent named Frank (Will Arnett), who is also working on the case, accidentally thwarts Max’ plan, which allows the criminals to escape. After the botched bust, Max and Frank get thrown together
Turner & Hooch (1989) style and are tasked with tracking down the robbers and rescuing the panda. Turning rough-and-tumble Max into a well-groomed, well-mannered canine is just one of the many challenges this unlikely duo must face as they attempt to take a bite out of crime. If the plot sounds familiar, it is. Show Dogs is, at its core, a talking animal version of the Sandra Bullock vehicle, Miss Congeniality (2000). However, whereas Congeniality was a crowd-pleasing romp, Dogs is a witless dud…and that’s putting it mildly. Somewhere along the way, writers started working adult jokes into kids’ movies in order to hold the attention of the parents in the audience. Their justification for employing these guised gags is that they sail right over the heads of younger viewers. This deplorable strategy is a gross underestimation of the impressionable and increasingly savvy children in our society. The truth is, young people are assimilating these crude references whether they completely understand them or not. So here we have a litany of adult jokes shrouded in seemingly innocuous moments of levity. Though subtly delivered in most cases, the movie is filled with double entendres. The movie is also inundated with potty humor, suggestive dialog and even hints of bestiality (Frank engages in a ballroom dance with Max, who stands on his hind legs, and sleeps on the same bed with Max and a Papillon, who remarks that it’s “what nature intended.”) A whole section of the film deals with preparing Max for when the judge will inspect his private areas. As would be expected, this part of the movie generates many unnecessary comments, especially during the bikini wax sequence. And who decided to set this supposedly family film in Las Vegas? Is there a more family unfriendly location the writers could’ve chosen? One character observes that Vegas is marked by luxury and excess, which would seem to indicate how unsuitable it is as the location for a kids’ movie. As the main character, Max is a terrible role model. A fellow contestant sums up the Rottweiler perfectly by stating that Max is cynical, overbearing, can’t work in a team and doesn’t trust anyone. Max’ dialog consists of rude one-liners and inappropriate comments like: “You run like a wiener dog” and “Ah, grow some balls.” Hopefully these examples will serve as a deterrent for those considering this film for their next family night. Parents are strongly cautioned to steer their kids away from this movie and toward more wholesome entertainment. Don’t let anyone fool you…Dogs isn’t a family film.

The Breakdown:

Directing- The movie’s director, Raja Gosnell, is no stranger to the genre (or canines), having helmed Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. The style and lowbrow fare on display here is pretty much the same as in Gosnell’s earlier flicks.

Acting- Despite its pedestrian plot, the film has attracted an array of top-tier talent. In addition to human characters like Mattie (perfectly played by Natasha Lyonne from Orange is the New Black), the movie’s various talking animals are voiced by notables from a number of different entertainment segments, including: actors (Alan Cumming and Stanley Tucci), athletes (Shaquille O’Neal), singers (Jordin Sparks), comedians (Gabriel Iglesias) and reality TV show hosts (RuPaul).

Story- The screenplay, written by Max Botkin and Marc Hyman (not to be confused with wellness physician, Mark Hyman), is mind-numbingly inane, even by talking animal movie standards. The story is merely a loose assemblage of cheesy one-liners (“I knew I smelled bad attitude.”), hyperreal high jinks (like Max bending his way around a moving car Matrix style) and disgusting images (like the spinach, egg shells and whole raw fish smoothie) held together by a contrived plot. From one set of credits to the other, there’s no stoppage of dialog. These characters (mostly animal) just never shut up. Sadly, much of what they say is offensive and doesn’t have any substance whatsoever.

Costumes/Make-up- The NYC and Vegas costumes are appropriate to their settings. Thankfully, dancers and other Vegas performers are adequately clothed in most scenes. The animal costumes, which are difficult to tailor, are also well crafted.

Cinematography- One of the brighter spots in the film is David Mackie’s camera work. The action sequences are well filmed and the pageant scenes, though indebted to the brilliant competition scenes in Best in Show (2000), are enjoyable and lend the movie a measure of reality. Kudos to Mackie for his extensive work with the movie’s many animals, which are never easy to film.

Music- The movie doesn’t really have a score, at least not in the traditional sense—just a lot of up-tempo beats and rap music for the action sequences.

Visual FX- Mostly CGI of dogs talking, making faces and doing unrealistic feats. Nothing groundbreaking.

Production Values- For a supposed kids’ movie, the film has surprisingly high production values. The film makes good use of its locations and appears, in most respects, to be a major studio film even though it was produced by Global Road Entertainment.

Movie Magic- Unless you’re a 6-year-old, you’ll probably find this film unbearably silly.

Rating: 1 ½ out of 4 stars

Ready Player One (PG-13)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan
March 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise
:

A young man attempts to win fame, fortune and the affections of a young woman by solving the mysteries of a virtual reality game.

The Evaluation:

Seems like it’s been ages since Steven Spielberg directed a live-action action movie—since mo-cap
The Adventures of Tintin (2011) doesn’t count, the last such film was Indy IV, which was released a decade ago. Based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One taps into our society’s obsession with video games and genre entertainment. The plot revolves around a VR game called the OASIS, which was created by eccentric game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance). As with computer games like Second Life or Turf Wars, real-world money can purchase loot (weapons and equipment) inside the OASIS. And just like in a video game, when you run out of lives the game is over. In the OASIS, however, you also lose all of your currency, which other players can scoop up. In a riff on Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’s Golden Tickets, Halliday concealed three keys inside his VR world. Once discovered, these keys will help one player unlock the secrets of the OASIS, become the envy of millions, and, of course, earn a boatload of cash. Parzival/Wade (Tye Sheridan), the common denizen of a Columbus, OH “stacks” (mobile home towers), has aspirations of being the winner. But in order to achieve that goal, he’ll have to enlist the support of other skilled players, like Art3mis/Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and Aech/Helen (Lena Waithe). More importantly, he’ll need to look at things in radically different ways than any other player who’s ever played the game. Despite its promising premise and cornucopia of creativity, RPO never exceeds its YA trappings or overdetermined themes: rags-to-riches idealism and little guy vs. corporate overlord populism. There are plenty of nitpicks here too…since the OASIS is populated with millions of players from all around the world, how is it possible that Wade’s team of five players all live in the same neighborhood in Columbus? Character complexity, even for adults like Wade’s deadbeat guardians and lispy villain Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), is egregiously pedestrian in the movie and the jeopardy never reaches a level of intensity above standard teen peril. The action sequences are overblown and appear as if they were designed solely for the purpose of conveying the adrenalin-pumping exhilaration of a video game to the big screen, which they’re only marginally successful at doing. RPO is afflicted by a debilitating dichotomy—the teen characters and pulse-pounding action sequences are intended to attract a younger crowd, while the ubiquitous allusions to 80s pop culture are meant to reach an audience 40 and above (their parents). Since the film fails to fully connect with either generation, it might be disregarded on that basis, even by those who would normally enjoy this type of film. As a mash-up of the sci-fi, fantasy and gaming genres, you’d expect far more imagination than what’s on display here. The Doom environment, where two sprawling armies (comprised of every type of avatar, creature or character imaginable—including the Iron Giant) charge each other on a verdant plain, is like a massive Hobbit-style melee. However, the battle sequence is all eye candy and fails to build any genuine suspense since we know none of the main characters will die (not in real-life anyway). The movie isn’t completely devoid of innovation, though. One clever creation is the Zemeckis Cube, which looks just like a Rubik’s Cube and is named after the director of the Back to the Future movies, Robert Zemeckis. When solved, the eponymous cube resets the clock 25 seconds so that you can go back in time and undo a catastrophic event (of course, this creates a snafu since how many people can solve a Rubik’s cube that quickly, especially when caught in the middle of a firefight?). Even though it’s a frequently employed in sci-fi stories—ranging from Galaxy Quest (1999) to a recent episode of Star Trek Discovery where Mudd keeps looping time—the time rewind gag still provides a fun moment here. It’s ironic that a movie focused on an Easter egg is filled with them. From the Buckaroo Banzai costume to a toy model of the original Battlestar Galactica, and the ST:TMP poster in a window to the life-sized model of Robby the Robot from Lost in Space in the corner of a room, the movie is packed with enough pop culture references to overload your flux capacitor. The movie’s resolution contains another quotation of Wonka (inheriting the company), but the denouement is overlong and overplayed. Though this is a return to form for Spielberg, the movie is a shallow, and occasionally self-referential, pastiche. RPO is full of empty mind calories and is, sadly, devoid of heart. In the end, the only relevance the movie has is that it’s a cautionary tale regarding the frightening implications of our impending VR existence. So, will there be a Ready Player Two? As a hero of mine (James T. Kirk) once said, “I certainly hope not. I found one quite sufficient.”

The Breakdown:

Directing- After a string of historical dramas—War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017) (with 2016’s kiddie pic The BFG thrown into the mix)—Spielberg has returned to his action/adventure roots. But has he matured beyond this type of film? No one can fault his craftsmanship here, but the movie just seems incongruous with his recent works and is completely beneath him. Still, RPO must’ve been a nostalgic trip for the director since it contains many references to his early life and career.

Acting- Sheridan is decent as the hero, but it’s Cooke who shines as the worldly-wise, no-nonsense sidekick. Mendelsohn, who was serviceable as the villain (Krennic) in Rogue One, is utterly laughable here as a greedy, selfish tycoon who pays his employees to find the three keys just like Mr. Salt (Roy Kinnear) pays his factory workers to unwrap chocolate bars to obtain a Golden Ticket for his daughter in Wonka. Rylance, Spielberg’s touchstone of late, is the backbone of the story and conveys the only genuine emotions in the film as the lovelorn programmer who just wants to go back to when games were fun…before designers ruined them by making the graphics so realistic that nothing was left to the imagination. Simon Pegg underwhelms in a role that neither suits his energetic personality nor his comedic sensibilities. Maybe he accepted the part just to work with Spielberg.

Story- The story by Zak Penn and Cline is a mixed bag. The way they introduce the OASIS is extremely odd—it’s like a documentary/infomercial about the history and conventions of the VR world. The intro contains way too much preamble…we just want to watch the movie/play the game. Plus, the writers need to show us, not tell us what’s going on in these scenes. Case in point, instead of mentioning the option to climb Mt. Everest with Batman, the writers’ should’ve incorporated that plot possibility into the story (and if licensing was an issue, they should’ve selected a different hero). These amazing concepts feel like secondhand descriptions rather than firsthand experiences. RPO’s expositional opening is like playing the demo of a video game and getting enough of a feel for it that you get bored at the thought of playing the actual game. Some of the challenges are far too easy for the characters to solve and many of the clues are telegraphed (like the ones obtained while watching just the right moment of Halliday’s expansive video library). In short, the writers try to cram too many characters and too many action sequences into a story that’s overstuffed with iconography, styles and themes from the pop culture grist of a bygone era.

Costumes/Make-up- Though diverse and colorful, many of the stylish outfits seen inside the OASIS are rendered on a computer, which means they qualify more as FX than physical costumes. The VR bodysuit is an impressive creation and is destined to be a household item in the future.

Cinematography- Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan) is as masterful as ever. However, since the majority of the film is composed of CGI characters and environments, the visuals grow tiresome after a while (like watching a feature-length podrace). The epic battles are well staged and filmed, but come off looking like a LOTR-style fracas with cosplayers subbed in for orcs and trolls.

Music- Alan Silvestri’s score is full of energy and whimsy and hearkens back to his work on the Back to the Future movies.

Visual FX- Mind-blowing CGI that, unfortunately, equates to empty calories for the brain…like many video games. The OASIS is pure artifice. The CG never slows down long enough for your eyes to assimilate the many details inside the VR world. Is that because the CG artists cut corners? Though they serve as the actual star of the movie, the FX aren’t nearly as impressive as those seen in last year’s Valerian—another action-packed, teeny sci-fi adventure.

Production Values- Unquestionably a top-dollar production. The film attempts to create a cinematic video game experience. It achieves just that…for better or worse.

Movie Magic- Totally subjective. Teens may like the action and video game aspects and adults may like all the references to 80s pop culture. Many people will dislike the movie for either or both of those reasons.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

A Wrinkle in Time (PG)

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Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Storm Reid
March 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

With the assistance of three mystical women, a teenage girl embarks on a dangerous journey through time and space to rescue her father from an evil entity.

The Evaluation:

Having recently read Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal winning book,
A Wrinkle in Time, I watched the film with a wary eye toward any divergences from page to screen. Though remaining faithful to the source material in most respects, the movie has made some modifications, and in each instance those changes were poorly considered and executed. From a diversity standpoint, the film is an unqualified success. Director Ava DuVernay is an African American woman—double diversity points. The cast of characters from the book has undergone a significant shakeup in the movie, which was to be expected since the world today is much different than it was when Mrs. L’Engle wrote the book in 1962. Half of the characters have switched races and one (Zach Galifianakis’ Happy Medium) has changed genders. Though it’s clear that Disney was out to make a statement with this affirmative action character mash-up, the diversity here seems like a political and media stunt. After all, it’s one thing to create diversity naturally and quite another to go about things in such an obvious and overdetermined manner that your political bias bleeds though the onscreen action like a copyright watermark. Though the casting was excellent for all of the young actors, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and Calvin (Levi Miller) come off far better than Meg (Storm Reid). Overall, Meg is much more brooding and contrary here than in the book, which is a tremendous letdown since she’s the main character. Even though all of the magical “Mrs.” are well cast, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) is too annoying, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) is too esoteric and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) is too…big. The image of the colossal Mrs. Which is preposterous, but her immense size can be taken as a clever metaphor for the status of the actor portraying her—Oprah is, unquestionably, a media giant. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell starts out well by hewing closely to the book’s plot and dialog, while updating it to reflect the sensibilities of kids in a modern school. Everything is smooth sailing until the kids Tesser (beaming through space/time at warp speed, to employ Star Trek parlance). The planet concept for Uriel is far too grandiose; it takes the book’s description of a verdant paradise and turns it into a CG video game landscape. The scene where Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) transforms herself into a giant flying leaf is unexpected, yet utterly ridiculous. Though exhilarating, the ensuing magic carpet ride sequence is gimmicky and seems like it was included just to give the leisurely story a much needed adrenalin boost. The whole sequence is oversaturated and overblown and looks like the trailer for Avatar 2. The kids’ arrival on dark world Camazotz (dumb name that’s hard to pronounce), cues another action sequence that wasn’t in the book—the cracking landscape and violent windstorm sequence is just another whiz-bang action scene that adds absolutely nothing to the movie. The suburban cul-de-sac scene, where kids bounce red balls in perfect unison, is one of the creepier visuals in the movie and is well executed. The rest of the movie is pretty much a disaster. We never get to see the business district on Camazotz, nor the CENTRAL Central Intelligence Building. Disney should’ve spent less of its budget on meaningless action scenes and more on decent sets for the back half of the movie. Although the invisible architecture superimposed over the bright, sleek antechamber walls (which requires Mrs. Who’s glasses to see) is cleverly realized, the interior of Mr. Murry’s (Chris Pine) prison chamber is something out of a 60s drug trip and isn’t utilitarian in the least (it has no bed, sink, etc). The entire section of the book where Meg convalesces under the magical ministrations of aliens with tentacles doesn’t appear in the film—a significant loss. The final confrontation with IT has overwrought FX and is storyboarded like one of the protracted battles in the LOTR films. And speaking of protracted, the movie’s denouement is painfully long. The book ends before the characters return home, which was a wise choice. In the movie, Mr. Murry apologizes to Meg for putting his career before her; it’s a sequence that feels forced and unfounded and is made worse by Pine’s awkward acting. The many reunions and embraces at the end of the movie are overboard and uber-schmaltzy. The movie wraps up just as a Hallmark movie would—happy ending writ large. Bottom line: Disney’s Wrinkle freelances when it shouldn’t and skips some key material from the book. This big screen treatment of L’Engle’s book goes too big in many places and fails to capture the tangible magic and unbridled creativity that permeates every page of the book. L’Engle’s masterwork deserved a far better fate than this uninspired effort. Though it pains me to say, Disney’s Wrinkle is a miss…so miss it.

The Breakdown:

Directing- It’s bitterly ironic that DuVernay, a female director, consistently eschewed character development in favor of big budget action sequences that amount to little more than visual fluff. The emotions at the end of the movie are downright mawkish. A disappointing effort.

Acting- Due to the writing, most of the characters are cardboard cutouts of living, breathing characters. This is particularly true of Witherspoon’s portrayal of Whatsit, which blends her characters from Legally Blonde and Big Little Lies into an overly perky, yet ultra-critical, caricature. I would’ve expected Pine to bring more to his role; his performance is off-kilter and cursory. Surprisingly, the kid actors deliver better performances than the film’s many seasoned stars.

Story- The story has too many action scenes, too few character scenes and the ending is a maudlin mess. The film’s lack of magic starts with the script. It baffles the mind, and breaks the heart, to consider how Disney has perverted L’Engle’s timeless fantasy tale into pedestrian drivel with scant imagination and magic.

Costumes/Make-up- The outfits for the three “Mrs.” are well done, especially Whatsit’s flowing gowns.

Cinematography- The gorgeous framing on Uriel is the movie’s high point visually; everything else is fairly standard.

Music- One of the highlights of the movie is Ramin Djawadi’s fanciful and cheery score. The gorgeous orchestrations with accompanying choir during the Uriel scenes add immeasurably to the magic of this section of the film.

Visual FX- Top dollar, but overdone. See review.

Production Values- A lavish Disney production, but too much of its budget was spent on eye-candy visuals rather than on convincing sets. See review.

Movie Magic- Depends. Young kids, 10 and under, may enjoy the movie. However, judging from the reaction of the teens in the theater I attended, they thought it was pretty lame. With tenuous characterizations and oversimplified situations rife with teen peril, adults will probably find the film insufferable—even those who grew up reading the book, which is a real shame. An even bigger shame is that the movie focuses too much of its attention on jaw-dropping visuals rather than on human qualities like courage, faith and love. As such, the film will have no relevance or staying power.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

The Shape of Water (R)

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Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins
December 2017


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

While American and Russian agents seek to exploit a recently discovered aquatic life form for their own purposes, a lonely mute woman falls in love with the creature.

The Evaluation:

Del Toro, who brought us
Pan’s Labyrinth, two Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, has perfected his craft with The Shape of Water (easily one of the most evocative movie titles ever), a Cold War, trans-species love story told through a skewed filter and delivered with a visual brilliance nearly unparalleled in recent cinema history. So let’s dive right in…Shape has many layers. If you think you’ve figured out what’s going on in the film’s text, there’s always the subtext to consider. The movie uses symbolism, thematic echoes, unexpected reverses, inverted stereotypes and modern parallels to great advantage. One conspicuous bit of symbolism involves eggs. Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) uses an egg timer (in the shape of an egg) when boiling eggs and timing her activities in the bathtub, which also deals with reproduction (female eggs). When Eliza makes first contact with the creature, she gives it a hard-boiled egg as a gesture of friendship. Later, when she copulates with the dubiously compatible creature, Eliza consummates (literally and figuratively) the egg subplot, since having her physical needs met by another has freed Eliza from her tub prison (more symbolism). Eliza’s water habitat is the tub; the creature’s water habitats are the tube and pond. Eliza and the creature merge in three other bodies of water: her tub, her flooded bathroom and the bay of the ocean. Before we leave the egg timer metaphor, it’s worth mentioning that Eliza’s regimented existence is a reflection of our own in many respects, since daily routines and responsibilities (chores, shopping, cooking, working, paying bills, etc) can be their own special form of incarceration. Ironically, Eliza is just as much a prisoner as the creature is—freeing the creature will free her from her self-imposed prison of loneliness. There’s overt symbolism in the various reactions to the creature…when faced with the unknown, some will be filled with curiosity and others with fear (fight or flight). The conservative vs. liberal reactions to the creature are fairly transparent (and oversimplified) and reveal a clear bias against one of those political worldviews. Also clear is the movie’s pro-Russia, anti-America sentiment, which turns the Cold War on its head. American agents (particularly Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland) are loud, crass and aggressive, while the Russian agent (brilliantly underplayed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who, along with Shannon, was a cast member of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is reserved, calculated and sympathetic toward the creature. Strickland’s racist, nationalist, isolationist agenda is abhorrent and is a little too on-the-nose in its portrayal of adherents of the political party in question. Strickland is an angry man who’s in a loveless marriage; contrast his angry and messy love-making with the beautiful bathroom coitus between Eliza and the creature. Strickland also makes inappropriate advances toward Eliza, racist comments about Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and tortures the creature in his own, private Guantanamo (another political parallel). When the creature bites off Strickland’s fingers, the military man is more concerned with retrieving his severed digits than his wedding ring. His ring, and marriage by extension, isn’t precious to him (LOTR’s Gollum in reverse). All of this reveals Strickland, not the creature, as the movie’s bona fide monster. One curious side story involves Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) desire to matter in a world that’s passed him by. Giles painfully learns that he’s lived past his shelf date relationally (his attempts at wooing a young waiter implode) and occupationally (the sensibilities of his ad artwork have become outdated). This subplot touches on the ageism that exists in today’s job market and how marketing typically targets the youth of our society. As Eliza’s friend/neighbor/mentor, Giles serves a key role in the plot to extricate the creature. The message is clear; everyone has a part to play in the unfolding human drama. Though there are deeper zones to be explored in the film, this brief overview of the movie’s many layers of meaning should suffice in recommending it as an instant classic…and frontrunner for Best Picture.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Del Toro has delivered a visual masterpiece, which effectively combines a Cold War thriller with a fantasy romance. The formalism on display here is truly staggering.

Acting- The eclectic cast of top-tier performers (Shannon, Stuhlbarg, Jenkins, Spencer, David Hewlett and the brilliant Doug Jones) are completely upstaged by Hawkins’ mesmerizing, deeply-affecting portrayal of the lonely, lovelorn lead character.

Story- The script by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor is equal parts fantastical, historical, meaningful and magical. The allusions to classical Hollywood movies are a nice touch; they tangibly tap into feelings of nostalgia for that era. When taken at face value, Shape is just a fantasy film. However, the story’s many aspects contain plot points that the viewer might not even be aware of—which makes the film such an enjoyable, and immersive, experience.

Costumes/Make-up- The period appropriate costumes are well designed. The style of the creature’s costume hearkens back to the titular monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and is brilliantly realized.

Cinematography- While it’s del Toro’s vision that makes the film cohere, it’s Dan Laustsen’s brilliant framing that provides much of the movie’s visual wonder and beauty. Who will ever forget the flooded bathroom love scene?

Music- Another exceptional score by Alexandre Desplat. Many of the cues written for Eliza’s character are whimsical and sublime. The underwater passages, where several flutes combine to produce an otherworldly effect, are moody and moving.

Visual FX- Other than the underwater scenes there are very few visual effects in the movie.

Production Values- Top-notch. Real world elements (with historically accurate detail) are seamlessly juxtaposed with fantastical elements (and even flourishes of the absurd like the refrigerator filled with slices of Key lime pie) to forge a wholly original world.

Movie Magic- Immeasurable. The brilliant visuals, pitch-perfect performances, superlative directing, affecting accompaniment, multivalent story and period appropriate production elements all make for an unforgettable viewing experience.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Hostiles (R)

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Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale
January 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

A soon-to-retire Army captain must deliver his sworn enemy, a murderous Indian chief, back to his tribe.

The Evaluation:

The movie opens with natives ambushing a homestead and killing an entire family, except for the wife/mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who cleverly evades the band of bloodthirsty Apache warriors. While en route to Montana, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) comes upon the Quaid’s charred cabin and offers to escort Rosalie to the nearest fort.  The intrepid sojourners encounter extreme weather, aggressive natives and trigger-happy settlers (but surprisingly, no bears) along the way. All of this is standard fare for a Western film.  Gorgeous southwestern mountain vistas, like the ones seen here (filmed in New Mexico), are also a staple of Western movies.  In short, there really isn’t anything revolutionary about
Hostiles.  However, it’s the efforts of director/writer Scott Cooper and the exceptional performances by Bale, Pike and Wes Studi, as Chief Yellow Hawk, that make this a noteworthy entry into the genre.  The movie is gritty without being graphic; though there’s some violence (scalping), this isn’t Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).  Cooper’s story deftly builds jeopardy as the group endures one threat after the next, culminating with a rather unpleasant confrontation with the greatest hostiles of all…the White Man.  Though the film never plumbs the depths of human emotion like Unforgiven (1992), it effectively shows the plight of those struggling to navigate the savage architecture of the wild frontier. Though not the best Western to have trotted along in recent years (2015’s Bone Tomahawk holds that honor in my estimation), Hostiles is a well written, well acted survival yarn that confronts the ugliness of racism while extolling the virtues of love and courage. In short, Hostiles is a journey well worth taking.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Cooper’s (Black Mass) direction is sure-handed, if not stellar. He makes good use of his locations, but fails to create any splendor or atmosphere with his establishing shots. On the flipside, Cooper evokes tremendous performances from his actors, particularly the stars.

Acting- Bale and Pike are astounding in their roles…there isn’t a single false note between them. Bale beautifully underplays his part and Pike expresses the right emotion at the right time every time. The supporting cast members were chosen with great care and seem as if they drifted right out of the prairie and into the story. Stephen Lang is pitch-perfect as Colonel Biggs. Bill Camp (The Night Of), Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights), Q’orianka Kilcher (Princess Ka’iulani), Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) and Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) all bring their parts to life with startling realness.

Story- Cooper relies too heavily on Western movie tropes while offering very few variations on the theme. I’m also conflicted about the ending, which is gimmicky and played for emotional effect. Does a film this harshly realistic need a happy ending?

Costumes/Make-up- Period appropriate down the line.

Cinematography- An excellent job overall by Masanobu Takayanagi, but the establishing shots of mountain vistas don’t really stand apart from those in any other modern Western.

Music- Max Richter’s score doesn’t draw attention to itself, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- The Western elements (sets, props, etc.) are authentic and finely crafted. The military fort and frontier town are particularly impressive.

Movie Magic- Though an unapologetically bleak tale, Hostiles succeeds at highlighting some of the beauty amid the brutality of the Old West.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (PG-13)

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Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley
December 2017


What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The first post-Lucas, Disney owned Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens (2015), was a smashing success.  J.J. Abrams, a self-proclaimed diehard SW fan from his youth, did more than just direct the film; he established the look, feel, tone and style for the new trilogy.  Awakens was reverent to the original trilogy (although it tapped the tropes, themes and events of A New Hope with abandon), and carved out its own unique corner of the SW universe.  With such solid footing and a literal handoff of the baton (lightsaber) from Abrams to the new director (the barely-established, virtually unknown Rian Johnson), Star Wars: The Last Jedi was destined to be a surefire hit.  However, even though the movie will make bank at the box office (as all SW movies do), Last Jedi is a galactic disappointment.  To temper that caustic contention, let me first say that the film’s production elements are stellar across the board.  Sets, costumes, FX, makeup, sound, etc. are all top-notch and should be serious contenders come awards season.  Although we get some occasional stiffness (acting arthritis) from Mark Hamill and the sadly departed Carrie Fisher, the performances are solid enough, especially from the younger actors, to service this action/adventure space opera.  So where did the movie go wrong?  There’s only one area of the movie, indeed only one person, that made this movie fail…Rian Johnson.  Whereas Johnson’s directing choices are satisfactory (save for the scene where a frosted over General Leia (Fisher) floats through space like Mary Poppins without an umbrella), his writing reveals a significant lack of understanding regarding pacing, structure, tone and especially dialog.  Last Jedi features an extremely simplistic and straightforward storyline.  For nearly half the movie, the rebel fleet crawls along at sublight speed (a term borrowed from Star Trek), and the plodding plot perfectly matches its pace.  Much of the story goes absolutely nowhere.  Even worse, it goes in circles without achieving anything at all.  Case in point, when the story becomes mired in a series of scenes involving Star Destroyers taking potshots at the rebel flotilla, Johnson has Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) take us on a side trip to a resort planet (Canto Bight).  This boomerang subplot, which includes a couple of action sequences, a herd of animals, a handful of kids and a new side character, achieves absolutely nothing since the two rebels end up in the clutches of the enemy.  It’s utterly laughable that Finn and Rose are actually surprised when their new friend, DJ (Benicio Del Toro), turns out to be a scoundrel (shades of Lando’s betrayal in The Empire Strikes Back), even though they never make contact with the rebel spy they were sent to meet—the code breaker with the red flower brooch (Justin Theroux).  At the heart of the movie’s narrative ailment is a profound and pervasive identity crisis.  What’s its theme?  What’s its message?  What’s its objective?  One of the major problems with the story is that it has no MacGuffin, save for survival.  With no overarching goal or purpose, the plot casts about in search of some kind of meaning, but since it never finds any, the movie settles for a string of action sequences just to keep the story moving forward.  Ironically, the film is a reflection of its own weaknesses: conflicted characters mirror a conflicted story.  Johnson clearly intends to keep the audience guessing as to the loyalties of the main characters, but while attempting to psych us out, he muddles character motivations and muddies the narrative waters.  Ultimately, the joke is on Johnson since we’re way ahead of him (I mean, Rey actually being tempted to join the Dark Side?  C’mon!).  The story works overtime to depict the inner conflict of several characters.  Is Luke (Hamill) good or bad?  Is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) good or bad?  Is Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) good or bad?  Johnson exerts so much effort on these questions that it becomes exhausting, doubly so since the answers are so painfully obvious.  The mutiny subplot, where Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) defies Holdo and does what he thinks is best for the survival of the rebel remnant, is utterly distasteful and only provides momentary tension in the plot.  Dissension in the ranks doesn’t really suit SW …it’s more of something you’d see on Battlestar Galactica (2003).  Holdo’s character arc is particularly vexing due to her vacillating likeability and consistently illogical command decisions.  Though she makes the right choice in the end, Holdo should’ve taken action much sooner, before so many of her people were killed (plus, a quicker reaction would’ve moved the story along faster and shaved off a few minutes of the film’s too long 2 ½ hour screen time).  At least something good comes from Holdo’s desperate act; besides providing a momentary escape for the rebels, we’re treated to the film’s finest visual effect—a weaponized hyperspace jump.  Speaking of FX, two of the mo-cap characters from Awakens have returned here, with less than impressive results.  Again, we can’t fault the performers or the visual effects artisans for their efforts; the blame lands squarely on Johnson’s shoulders.  The story beat where we get glimpses of Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) fighting some far-off war via a choppy video transmission is a total throwaway scene which is shamelessly shoehorned into the story just to remind kids to buy action figures with her likeness.  The bigger disappointment is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who was portrayed as a towering, malevolent shadow lord in Awakens, but actually turns out to be far less physically intimidating and even less sinister than we were originally led to believe (and what’s with that bland, red background in his throne room?).  Johnson wrote stilted, simpleton and self-aggrandizing dialog for Snoke, and one wonders if Snoke’s characterization here is a thinly-veiled dig at President Trump.  Snoke is far too overconfident in his abilities in the Force (and who trained him?) and loves “dialoging” (The Incredibles).  Besides plagiarizing the Emperor’s (Ian McDiarmid) talk track wholesale, Snoke also enjoys playing with his captive (like a cat toying with a mouse) a little too much.  Plus, even though he claims to see everything, he can’t even sense a threat sitting right next to him?  Weak!  Like Boba Fett and Count Dooku before him, Snoke is dispatched far too easily.  Snoke is a poor man’s Emperor.  He’s all bluster with none of the menace.  In short, Snoke is a joke.  Snoke’s Ninja guards are like highly trained Imperial Guards from Return of the Jedi (1983).  This is just one of many callbacks to the original trilogy.  Judging from Johnson’s rigid insistence on rehashing themes, settings and dialog from the earlier SW films, it could be argued that the entire narrative of Last Jedi is one giant pastiche.  Here are just a few examples…  The rebels have to evacuate their base and get past an Imperial blockade (Empire).  Ships that engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid capital ships because they can’t enter hyperspace (Empire).  Luke trains Rey, just like Yoda trained Luke in Empire—and it’s amazing how well Rey fights after just a few lessons.  Near the middle of the movie, Rey enters an obsidian land anus to learn the identity of her parents. Disappointingly, Rey steps into a celestial fun house where she sees countless copies of herself in mirrors that taper to the vanishing point—an utterly superfluous sidebar, and more wasted screen time.  This sequence is similar to when Luke sees his face in Vader’s shattered helmet inside the Dark Side cave in Empire.  Gigantic walkers on a white plain (this time it’s salt, not snow) and rebel troops in trenches defending a base (Empire).  The image of a kid holding a broom like a lightsaber closes out the movie, and he stands in an archway that’s shaped just like the one inside the rebel medical frigate at the end of Empire.  These instances are just a few of the many allusions found in the story.  This doesn’t even include the many shots and lines of dialog that were lifted right out of the seminal trilogy.  Strangely, the ubiquitous gag line in every SW film: “I have a bad feeling about this,” isn’t uttered here.  The oft-repeated opening crawl phrase “spark of hope” is an insipid bromide that’s too reminiscent of A New Hope.  Another area of the film that’s derivative is John Williams’ score, which is a Greatest Hits compilation of his music for the original trilogy.  The quality of the music is predictably excellent, but it’s unacceptable that only about half of the score contains original music.  The post-crawl piccolo solo is identical to the opening of New Hope and signals the banal plot to come.  Though the movie’s shortcomings are many, perhaps the greatest is the horrendous depiction of Luke (I can’t fault Hamill’s acting—he does the most he can with a poorly conceived and written part). For his ham-handed handling of Luke, Johnson should be taken out and tarred and feathered.  Actually, Disney should be baptized in Bantha poodoo for green-lighting this hack script in the first place.  Johnson’s characterization of Luke is an abomination.  Luke is a jaded bully in most of his scenes.  He isn’t likable in the least and is a far cry from the hero we once knew.  Look no further than the Jedi Academy flashback sequences for evidence of this.  First we see the events of that fateful night through Luke’s memory and then through Kylo Ren’s (back to when he was still Ben Solo).  Aside from wasting precious screen time on Rashomon (1950) style he-said-she-said sequences that contain only minor variations, these scenes feature a flawed aspect of Luke’s character.  Let’s apply some logic to these fallacious back stories.  Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader committed countless murders (including the slaying of an entire school of kids, as seen in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith) and yet his son, Luke, can still sense good in him in Jedi. An older Luke senses evil in Ben Solo, who, at that point hasn’t killed anyone (that we know of).  As such, how can we reconcile the fact that young Luke’s steadfast objective is to redeem his genocidal maniac father, while old Luke’s first instinct is to kill his innocent nephew?  This is an emotional knee-jerk of epic proportions.  How could a Jedi Master act in such an irrational manner?  Since he was able to restore his father (Vader), shouldn’t Luke be able to prevent Ben Solo from going down the dark path and becoming Kylo Ren? Have his powers become that weak? Or his mind that feeble? Although Luke finds redemption in the end, the fact that he doesn’t “physically” come to the aid of the rebels cheapens the multigenerational dual and is a significant cheat on the part of Johnson (despite the dramatic mileage and plot twist he gets out of the climactic battle).  The much anticipated showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren features gaps in logic large enough to march a fleet of walkers through.  As someone adept at using the Force, shouldn’t Kylo be able to sense that Luke isn’t quite what he seems when peering down at him from the bridge of his ship (or to put it a different way, shouldn’t Kylo be able to detect Luke’s life force/energy, or the absence of it)?  Further, when face to face with Luke on the battlefield, shouldn’t Kylo question why his old mentor looks exactly as he did while teaching at the Jedi Academy (an estimated 10-15 years earlier)?  Luke’s black beard should be a dead giveaway, to Kylo and the audience, that Luke looks younger than he really is at present.  Also, Kylo knows Luke’s lightsaber is green. And yet, during the confrontation, Luke is wielding a blue lightsaber, which also has a hilt that looks just like the one Kylo and Rey recently ripped in half during their Force tug-of-war. With all of these visual clues, it’s inexplicable that Kylo could’ve fallen for Luke’s chicanery. Again, Johnson’s inexperience shows through during this sequence because his attempt at misdirecting the audience backfired with the creation of these major nitpicks.  Another of Johnson’s mishandled moments is the brief cameo by Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz).  At first we’re elated to see the diminutive Jedi master and then we’re puzzled when he displays an antagonistic attitude toward Luke.  Then we’re befuddled when he calls the sacred Jedi texts a dull read and condones Luke’s desire to burn them.  Yoda is completely out of character in this sequence (as is Luke). Not only does this sadly superfluous scene fail to significantly advance the plot, it squanders the appearance of one of the most beloved characters in the SW mythos.  Plus, it wastes even more screen time and seems positioned just to sell another toy version of Yoda.  Another character that was planted in the movie just to sell toys is new droid BB-9E.  The black robot has less than two minutes of total screen time and only has one pivotal scene. Though not nearly as annoying as the Ewoks (Jedi), the puffin-like porgs are shown squawking far too often in the film and are included here only to generate laughs from the kiddies so that they’ll run out and buy the toy version of the birds.  The porgs, which hail from planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), are certainly cute, but they’re overused in the movie.  In fact, the film is overloaded with creatures, including the large horse type creatures (fathiers) from Canto Bight and the crystal foxes (vulptex) on Crait (again, you can bet that each of these animals will be included in their own toy play set).  You would think that a movie so geared toward kids would be non-stop fun, but such is not the case.  In actuality, the movie has very little humor.  Most of the jokes, like Luke tossing a weapon over his shoulder in a screwball comedy flourish, are forced and fail to strike anywhere near the funny bone.  Worse still, the movie has no heart.  There are very few genuine emotions in Last Jedi. Also, as absurd as it sounds, the only natural acting in the entire film is when the rebel officer touches the white surface and dabs the substance on the tip of his tongue and says, “Salt.”  Everything else is hyperreal and put on for effect.  To be fair, the film succeeds in a few key areas.  Mentioned earlier, the cataclysmic hyperspace jump represents the film’s creative zenith.  The hyperspace tracker, though pilfered from New Hope, is a clever piece of technology that adds some much needed dramatic tension to the film.  On Crait, the red dirt under the surface of salt sets up some brilliant visuals when the rebel ships and walkers engage in combat—the vehicle movement patterns are like an elaborate Etch A Sketch drawing.  One clever character device is the Jedi Link (my appellation), which allows those with Force abilities to establish mental communication over vast distances of space.  The concept does have precedent in New Hope, when old Obi-Wan senses the deaths of scores of people on Alderaan, and at the end of Empire when Luke responds to Vader’s mental projections.  Though unsettling at first, the way one character can engage in a casual conversation with another person who’s standing in front of a contrasting background, is extremely effective visually.  These sequences are well executed and add a psychological dimension to the scenes between Rey and Kylo Ren (and are they related, since their connection is so strong?).  From the outset, it seems as if Johnson’s main objective was to confound the audience at every turn.  However, the employment of a constant string of plot twists for the sole purpose of catching the audience off guard can make a story not only tangential, but ultimately, inconsequential.  As the movie’s sole scribe (and why no assist from a veteran, proven screenwriter, like Lawrence Kasdan?), Johnson proves to be too slick for his own good by focusing on surprise over substance.  Unfortunately, the biggest surprise in the movie is how spectacularly Johnson failed.  In the final analysis, Last Jedi is a parade of disfigured character portraits, haphazard and hackneyed writing and plot holes big enough to fly a dreadnought through. If Last Jedi was converted into a mathematical proof it would be: flawed characterizations plus a flawed narrative equals a flawed film. After this middling effort, there can be no doubt that the Force is in flux.  Will the series pull out of its tailspin for the trilogy capper or will it continue its precipitous descent into the Sarlacc Pit of movie mediocrity (like the prequels, which Last Jedi resembles in many respects)?  That brings up another burning question…is this the worst SW movie ever made?  Actually, does Last Jedi even qualify as a SW film since it feels more like a high budget fanboy film than an authentic entry into the mythos?  Perhaps, due to some cosmic mix-up in The Twilight Zone, we ended up with an alternate Earth’s Last Jedi and they got ours.  Whatever the explanation is for Last Jedi’s myriad missteps, one thing is abundantly clear…the Force is not strong with this one.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Coco (PG)

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Directed by: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez
November 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

For their latest animated adventure, Disney/Pixar has selected main characters of a different kind.  Instead of focusing on toys, cars, fish, robots or insects, they’ve returned to the world of people.  However, not all of these people are alive.  No, the animation studios haven’t gone all zombie on us (although, how cool would that be?).  Focusing on the Mexican people and their Day of the Dead holiday (Nov. 1&2 annually), the studios have given us a glimpse of what life is like in the Land of the Dead.  The story focuses on Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who wants to be an entertainer like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).  Performing at the local talent show can help launch Miguel’s career, but first, he must borrow a guitar.  But not just any guitar…the signature guitar that Ernesto played during his heyday, before the bell tolled and he met an early demise.  Since he must ask for permission to play Ernesto’s guitar, Miguel embarks on a journey to the other side.  Once Miguel has crossed the petal covered bridge that connects both worlds, he sets out to find Ernesto among the teeming masses of the macabre metropolis.  As he navigates the Land of the Dead, Miguel encounters Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a lanky, fun-loving skeleton man who serves as both humorous sidekick and voice of reason for Miguel.  Despite his seemingly silly persona, Hector holds a secret that literally busts open the story like a smashed piñata.  Coco’s explosion of color rivals the visual vibrancy of the Finding films.  Though certainly a marvel in its own right, Coco’s prismatic palette pales in comparison to its brilliant plot, which is chock-full of colorful characters and meaningful moments.  This is the studios’ first attempt at spotlighting the customs and values of a minority culture.  Director Lee Unkrich and his team of writers wisely avoided populating the story with clichéd characters and worn-out stereotypes.  This is a deep dive into the hearts and minds of a people devoted to artistic expression, exuberant celebrations, fervent spirituality and, above all, the love of family.  We’re treated to some traditional and modern Latin music including “Remember Me,” a top-tier, tear-jerker that should be a shoo-in for Oscar’s Best Song.  Despite the fact that most of the movie works like magic, Coco has a fatal flaw—it borrows too heavily from other sources.  The film mirrors Back to the Future in several key areas.  Like Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), Miguel wants to be a famous guitar player.  Another point of comparison is that Marty and Miguel both travel through time (actually, the Land of the Dead probably exists outside of time, but close enough).  Also, Marty and Miguel frequently reference family photos to learn clues about their family history and identity…and very existence.  Ironically, the most obvious instance of plot theft in the story involves another Pixar movie.  The trajectory of this film’s villain is so similar to that of Up’s Muntz, the only word that comes to mind is derivative, which I never thought I’d use to describe a Pixar movie.  The film has problems with its premise too. For instance, is it really necessary to travel to the world beyond just to borrow a guitar?  Admittedly, these are minor grievances in a movie that thoroughly entertains.  The film subtly tempers its follow-your-dreams theme with a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of hero worship.  Unkrich does a remarkable job of making morbid subject matter relatable and even, at times, humorous (e.g. the nude skeleton portrait scene).  In the final analysis, Coco is rich in culture and character, sight and sound.  It’s also a heartwarming tale of multigenerational connection between a young boy and his grandparents.  Coco delivers an emotional wallop at the end, just to remain consistent with Pixar’s MO of leaving its audience in tears.  But this time they’re tears of joy. Over a family reunion.  Over fulfilled dreams.  And over a young boy returning home…to the Land of the Living.

Justice League (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck
November 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Though there are many comic book companies these days, the big two are DC and Marvel. In addition to producing comic books, both companies offer an array of entertainment on the small and big screens. Though achieving parity (in output and quality) has been a constant struggle for DC, the studio has, at long last, launched a cinematic version of its Justice League property—their answer to Marvel’s Avengers series. Aside from being five years behind their rival studio, DC also failed to properly establish all of its team members in solo movies as Marvel did for the Avengers (heck, they even stuck their neck out with Ant-Man, which turned out to be a crowd-pleasing success). JL members The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) all make their first appearance in the franchise here, sans a cinematic origin story. Rounding out the super group is: Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and…surprise, Henry Cavill as Superman. I made much of Superman’s absence from the JL poster in my review for Wonder Woman, which I now regret. I should’ve known that the indestructible Man of Steel would emerge just in the nick of time to mete out his particular brand of justice on the bad guys. It would’ve been senseless to exclude Superman from a JL movie since he’s the most recognizable superhero in the world. However, the way Superman is used in the movie is a whole other matter; his limited screen time and inconsequential involvement in the story is a super…uh, supreme disappointment. The story itself, written by Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon and director Zack Snyder, is one of the movie’s biggest drawbacks. The plot is a sprawling mess…it juggles multiple storylines and takes forever to get out of the starting gate. The action sequences are protracted and dizzying, yet are strangely absent of peril. Steppenwolf (the 70s called and want their rock band back) is a serviceable villain, but we already know he will be no match for Superman during their inevitable, climactic showdown. Steppenwolf’s (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) insectoid minions’ only function is to prevent the team from joining forces…because if that happened, the movie would be over in five minutes. The MacGuffins in this film are the three Mother Boxes (dumb name), which serve a similar function as Marvel’s Infinity Stones. Nothing new here. The movie makes an attempt at providing some personal background for each of the JL team members as well as some meaningful exchanges between the characters, like the lakeside chat between Bruce Wayne (Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gadot), but such efforts are still insufficient and perfunctory amid the rapid succession of action sequences. Other ancillary characters, like Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons), are given ridiculously little to do in the film. Likewise, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is called upon to be a Superman whisperer when her buffo boyfriend goes off the rails. Cyborg’s father, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), also has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part. The film’s tone is its Kryptonite. Much of the color has been removed from the picture so that the overall aesthetic is dismal and seedy, like a Batman comic book, but certainly not like a colorful Superman book. The story perfectly mirrors the tone…everything is done in earnest with a level of seriousness that allows only the occasional joke to penetrate the movie’s hard-boiled, world-weary exterior. By way of comparison, JL is less like Wonder Woman and more like Batman v Superman. In that regard, the studio is moving in the wrong direction. Bottom line: JL is a bleak blunder. It’s case in point for why Marvel is winning the comic book war, at least on the big screen. Marvel’s movies have become more colorful and humorous, while DCs have become increasingly dire, drab and dreary. DC’s gloomy outlook may be an accurate reflection of the world we live in, but Marvel’s optimistic, fun-filled adventures perfectly portray the world we want to live in. Is there any question why Marvel’s films continue to be more financially, commercially and critically successful than DC’s? If DC doesn’t step up its game, it will continue to Marvel at the success of its competitor.

The Dark Tower (PG-13)

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Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba
August 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Having read the first book of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novel series in advance of viewing the film of the same name, I’m disappointed in director Nikolaj Arcel’s efforts on several levels. First, only about ten minutes of the movie comes from the first book (primarily the Western scenes). Second, none of the atmosphere (“They could see the smooth, stepped rise of the desert into foothills, the first naked slopes, the bedrock bursting through the skin of the earth in sullen, eroded triumph”), poetry (“Time’s the thief of memory”) or visual vitality (“The guns did their work, stitching the darkness with red-white lances of light that pushed needles of pain into the gunslinger’s eyes”) of King’s book has been translated onto the big screen. Third, in the mold of Percy Jackson & The Olympians (2010) and The 5thWave (2016), The Dark Tower is told through the eyes of a young teenager and has that family-friendly, teen peril vibe to it that belies the book’s somber, sullied soul. Indeed, the book is much more adult (bars, brothels and bullet storms) than the movie and focuses on the exploits of the adults: Roland/the Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and Walter/the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey). Although the stars are well suited (and enjoyably cast against type) to their roles, they both seem bored with the material. Much like his stiff portrait in Pacific Rim (2013), Elba turns in a one-note performance here. McConaughey, who is supposed to be playing a latter-day grim reaper, is not nearly as menacing as he should be in the role. Case in point: Walter verbally abuses one of his minions for having a rat face. By contrast, Darth Vader would’ve just Force choked the offensive underling and signaled for the body to be dragged off. The best part of the film is Tom Taylor as Jake. Jake, who has visions and powers (chief among them is his skill with a pencil and art pad), is an interesting character that, due to the uninspired writing by Akiva Goldsman, et al., never develops into anything more than Roland’s 2D sidekick. In the end, the film’s commercialized story is its Achilles’ heel, since adherence to the source material would’ve made for a subtly nuanced, psychologically complex pursuit film. The end result here is a glorified teen film that attempts to emulate the visual ingenuity of The Matrix (1999) and Doctor Strange (2016), but ends up resembling (in quality if not movie magic) Tomorrowland (2015). King’s early masterwork deserved a much better cinematic fate.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland
July 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Sam Raimi helmed the three numbered Spider-Man films spotlighting Tobey Maguire, Marc Webb directed the two Amazing Spider-Man flicks featuring Andrew Garfield and Jon Watts is the shot caller behind the new subtitled wall-crawler series starring Tom Holland. Despite the changing faces on both sides of the camera, Spider-Man has remained a juggernaut at the box office over the past fifteen years. This sixth Spider-Man film makes a wise decision right out of the gate—it skips the spider bite origin story, which we’ve seen ad nauseam by now, and instead gives the movie context by cleverly showing a POV camcorder recording of Spider-Man’s derring-do during the climactic battle in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Kudos to Watts and his team of five writers for electing not to waste an hour of screen time on Spidey’s back story before initiating the actual story. The film opens eight years in the past and shows foreman Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) losing a contract to the government while cleaning up the debris after the NYC alien invasion as depicted in The Avengers (2012). Toomes discovers some alien technology in the rubble, fashions it into a bird suit and becomes villain Vulture (to remain consistent with Keaton’s other avian themed characters in Batman and Birdman). Meantime, Peter Parker (Holland) is desperately trying to impress a girl he’s crushing on at school while keeping up his grades and maintaining an internship (wink, wink) with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) can tell Peter is going through some difficulties, but chalks it up to normal teenage changes. Peter’s friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), provides some comic relief, and becomes trusted assistant (like Stark’s Happy Hogan) when he accidentally stumbles onto the secret of Peter’s alter ego. The story heats up about halfway into the film when Spidey spies on an illegal weapon’s exchange one night. After clumsily blowing his own cover (the fiery red suit certainly doesn’t help on recon missions), Spidey unwittingly interrupts the shady dealings of Vulture’s men, which sets off a chain reaction that eventually pits Spidey and Vulture in mortal combat. The film’s resolution pretty much dictates itself from there. There’s a good deal of high school angst in the movie, especially in the early goings, which hearkens back to the very first film. These scenes establish the setting and characters, provide background for Peter and are effective in showing the exigencies of his daily life, which, of course, is a stark contrast to his life at night. Although necessary for grounding the film and giving us a glimpse into the struggles of the real person behind the mask, these school scenes, particularly the prom proceedings, feel like they were lifted right out of an ABC Family or CW drama. However, more so than McGuire and Garfield, Holland nails Peter’s wide-eyed, overly idealistic and adorably naïve characteristics. Peter’s two caring, if absentee, guardians—May and Stark—offer him drive-by advice, but never when he needs it most…like when he discovers the identity of his archnemesis. As for Vulture, Keaton delivers an exceedingly restrained performance, especially when compared to the prototypical Marvel antagonist. We can identify with Toomes because he’s just an ordinary guy who makes a bad decision for the right reason…to provide for his family (and stick it to the government). Refreshingly, Keaton’s voice doesn’t change for effect, nor does he become more bombastic in speech and manner while inhabiting Vulture’s wing suit. As such, Vulture is one of the most realistic comic book movie villains ever (ironically, the runner-up is Spider-Man 2’s Alfred Molina as Doc Ock). Sadly, Vulture never strikes fear into the viewer and doesn’t really test Spidey’s mettle, which is a significant narrative misfire. This Spidey outing avoids many of the gimmicks employed in the earlier movies, i.e. rescuing cats in trees, etc, and offers some humorous asides, like when Spidey runs out of buildings to sling webs from and must jog a mile across a golf course in order to respond to an emergency. Though slow in developing, Homecoming is an exciting superhero action film once the plot kicks into high gear. If the movie has any weak spots, it’s that the story is surprisingly light-weight and that Spidey can never truly spread his wings and fly due to the intermittent avuncular advice and canned wisdom from Iron Man and Captain America (Chris Evans), respectively. Expanding on that analogy, it’s time for Spidey to fly solo in the next film. Like its young star, this third attempt at launching a Spider-Man franchise has loads of potential. Now it’s time to see if the series can live up to that potential or collapse under the weight of it.

Cars 3 (G)

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Directed by: Brian Fee
Starring: Owen Wilson
June 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The first Cars (2006) won over audiences with its charm, palpable nostalgia and pulse-pounding action. Cars appropriated the talking toys concept from Toy Story (1995) and built an entire world out of vehicles, including: semi trucks, helicopters, buttes that resemble vintage cars, tiny VW Bug flies and cow tractors (who could forget the “tractor tipping” scene?). The sequel, Cars 2 (2011), was an ambitious but ultimately disappointing effort that took the action overseas to Europe and featured a story that was overstuffed with the exploits of superspy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and an international scheme to rid the world of old or lemon cars—a subplot that was a little too on the bumper. Fortunately, the franchise is once again in pole position thanks to writer/director Brian Fee’s high octane and heartwarming story, which has returned the series to what made it such an enjoyable romp to begin with…meaningful themes couched in good old-fashioned fun. Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career has come full circle: in the first film he was a self-centered rookie, but now the veteran racer is one loss away from forced retirement, which will doom him to pitching mud flaps for the rest of his rusty existence. When McQueen suffers a catastrophic accident, his future in the sport is placed in serious jeopardy. This tragedy recalls Doc Hudson’s (Paul Newman) similar career ending crash in the original Cars. How McQueen reacts to his situation will determine his fate: will he retire, as Doc did, or will he get back into shape and acquire the eye of the tiger? Yes, that was a Rocky reference. And yes, Cars 3 is replete with Rocky allusions, like the beach race between trainer and trainee as seen in Rocky III (1982). Also, there’s a conspicuous evocation of Rocky IV (1985) in the way upstart rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) uses the latest virtual technology to train while McQueen, under the tutelage of Doc’s former trainer Smokey (Chris Cooper), gets back to the basics by driving on dirt tracks and practicing “sneak through the window” agility tests, which require him to weave in and out of a herd of meandering cow tractors on a highway. Fortunately, this subplot is skillfully and judiciously woven into the narrative so as to avoid being a blatant rip-off of Rocky. Another carefully measured story element is McQueen’s yellow training car Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Even though Cruz, the only female lead (Bonnie Hunt’s Sally only appears when McQueen needs a pep talk or swift kick in the fender), isn’t introduced until about halfway through the film, she has the most compelling story arc. Insidiously, Pixar tricks us into thinking the movie’s main character is McQueen when it’s really Cruz. Did I say insidious? I meant ingenious. While most of the characters from the earlier films have bit parts here, there are a few new side characters worth mentioning, including: Nathan Fillion as duplicitous tycoon Sterling, Kerry Washington as overconfident sports commentator Natalie Certain and Lea DeLaria as terrifying, bull-like school bus Miss Fritter. Aside from all of its kid-friendly silliness, i.e., the demolition derby at the Thunder Hollow speedway, there’s also plenty here for adults, particularly for those who have entered middle age or have felt the sting of being replaced by a young, ambitious hotshot at work. On the bright side, this film is a beautiful example of how a torch passed from generation to generation (Smokey to Doc to McQueen to Cruz) can pave the way to a lasting legacy far more lustrous than a showcase full of Piston Cup trophies. It’s like the “circle of life” with cars and trucks instead of lions and warthogs. So where does the series go from here? Can one-note Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and a doting McQueen sustain another movie? Is it time to turn things over to Cruz and a younger generation of race cars (which will inspire a whole new line of toy cars for kids to blow their allowance money on)? Regardless of whether it takes another lap or makes a permanent pit stop, the Cars series has been one wild ride.

Wonder Woman (PG-13)

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Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot
June 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Let’s face it, the best part of last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the arrival of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) during the epic confrontation. Providing some much needed vitality and panache to a mostly ponderous and lackluster film, Wonder Woman’s presence served the dual function of saving one film and instilling confidence in her ability to carry another. As it turns out, that confidence was well-placed since Wonder Woman is a far better film than that other one where the two squabbling male heroes needed the feminine touch to avert Doomsday. The first film to feature a female superhero opens with an elegant back story that gives us a glimpse into the early years of clay-made Diana (Lilly Aspell), who is raised on a paradise island among Amazon women—governed by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. We’re treated to a montage of well-choreographed training scenes, and then, quicker than you can yell “Princess of Themyscira,” Diana (Gadot) has transformed into an adult. Diana’s tranquil, idyllic life is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a German plane that crashes into the ocean inside the protective dome created by Zeus (isn’t it supposed to be impenetrable?). Diana rescues the pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (not James Kirk), who is played by Chris Pine. Steve, a British spy who speaks with an American accent, is in possession of information that could prove instrumental in ending the war. Diana is also invested in the cessation of hostilities and assigns herself the task of destroying Ares, the god of war. But will their opposing views on how to stop the bloodshed create its own conflict between Diana and Steve? Set during WWI, WW is a curious cross-universe twin of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), which took place during World War II and also featured a super-strong hero armed with an impervious, circular shield and an unerring moral compass. Was setting WW in 1918 instead of the post-Doomsday present a misstep? Hard to say, but the film’s quality certainly doesn’t suffer from the decision over its milieu. Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry together and the other performers offer stellar support, especially Danny Huston and David Thewlis. WW contains the optimal balance of story to action…let’s hope the upcoming Justice League follows that same formula. And why no Superman in JL? Wasn’t DC’s long game with Man of Steel (2013) and BVS to have Henry Cavill, along with Ben Affleck and Gadot, headline JL—a strategy filched wholesale from rival Marvel, which set up The Avengers franchise with its raft of stand-alone superhero showcases? Superman’s conspicuous absence from JL not only squanders Cavill’s talents, but also sidelines one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world from anchoring a film that’s been in the planning stages for years. Well, at least Wonder Woman will appear in JL. She’s proven herself to be a solid reliever as well as a dependable starter. WW is the best DC movie since Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Will wonders never cease?

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt
May 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) seemed to come out of left field—some obscure corner of the Marvel universe where the studio’s typical mock earnestness and platitudinous dialog was hastily jettisoned out the nearest airlock in favor of irreverent jibes and free-flowing wisecracks—and was wildly successful due to its star power and effective mixture of laugh-a-minute antics and mind-blowing action sequences. Sadly, that approach hasn’t been altered even one iota in the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It’s hard to believe that such a successful formula could become outdated so quickly, but this follow-up film suffers from a severe case of sequelitis. Though GOTG2 isn’t quite perfunctory, the story feels rushed along…it’s as if director/writer James Gunn, in his haste to return to this hugely popular and financially lucrative franchise, forgot to develop a plot and simply reheated the leftovers from the first film. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) generates a few laughs, but his shtick is predictable and almost annoying this time around. Although sapling Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is absolutely adorable, the bits where he fails to deliver what Rocket wants are also worn from repetition by now. Drax’ (David Bautista) ego is as enormous as his pecs and his superpower is his ability to simultaneously annoy Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the audience. The movie’s saving grace (aside from the brief cameo by Sylvester Stallone), is its writ large theme of reconciliation. The temporary truce between warring sisters, Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), makes for a mildly diverting subplot. Yondu (Michael Rooker), minor antagonist in the first film, finds redemption (albeit on a false note) here as Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) surrogate father. Peter’s real father arrives on a ship that looks like a gigantic egg, introduces himself as Ego, claims to own a planet and is played by none other than Kurt Russell…how ironic that Russell’s career started with goofy Disney movies and that he’s returned to the fold now that the Mouse House owns Marvel. The circle is now complete. And speaking of Star Wars, there’s a palpable Vader/Luke vibe going on when Ego tries tempting Peter into turning his back on his friends and accompanying him on a quest to rule the universe (Russell and Pratt have excellent chemistry in these scenes). It would’ve been a clever twist to show Peter testing out his newfound abilities—reveling in the unlimited power at his disposal to create whatever his heart desired—just to make us think that he might follow his dad to the Dark Side. But this film wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of subtlety, intrigue or complexity. For better or worse, GOTG2 is a straightforward action piece. Though this sequel will be a disappointment to many, there’s enough overblown action and overstated jokes to appeal to the popcorn set. Here’s hoping the eventual sequel will bring back the thrill ride exhilaration of the first film and replace these cardboard characters with the genuine articles from the original. And where is John C. Reilly?

Passengers (PG-13)

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Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence
December 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Passengers
Pod 1498 contains some guy named #Starlord. #Avalon #HomesteadII
“Just own it, Jim.”
#OwnIt
A lot of similarities to
#WALLE, especially the score by #ThomasNewman. #Autopilot #Axiom #Avalon
“I woke up too soon.” Jim is a bit of an
#EarlyBird. #Avalon
“It’s not possible for you to be here.” That’s the point,
#RoboTender. #Glitch
No
#PumpkinSpice on the #Avalon? There goes the future.
The
#SpaceLeap scene is absolutely breathtaking.
Jim trips on a bottle...it’s been the downfall of many men.
“It sure has a nasty sense of humor.”
#Universe
#Aurora Overdetermined sci-fi name?
“The ultimate geographical suicide.”
#SpaceHibernation #Avalon
Most amazing swimming pool in the universe.
Holding hands among the stars...best first date ever.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” Every man left on Earth agrees with you, Jim.
Loose-tongued bartender ruins Jim’s proposal.
#PlotTwist
Public Service Announcement: Never go swimming in
#ZeroGravity. #Avalon
612 physical disorders. Oh Frack!
The
#Avalon is supposed to be #Meteor proof. Yeah, and the #Titanic was supposed to be iceberg proof.
Those last ten minutes were heart-stopping.
Final analysis: a
#Titanic meets #WALLE lost in space yarn with scintillating central performances.
The only drawback here is its derivative plot.
Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4. #JenniferLawrence and #ChrisPratt have tremendous chemistry in this space survival story.
Freebie: the 3 dits, 3 dahs and 3 dits on the poster is
#MorseCode for #SOS.

What if a man was accidentally awakened from a suspended animation nap ninety years earlier than planned? What if that man, the only conscious person aboard a gigantic spaceship headed for a distant planet, went bat guano crazy from being alone all the time? What if the man watched the video profiles of the 5,000 passengers on the ship and fell in love with one of the women? And what if that man, in the throes of loneliness and boredom, decided to rouse that sleeping beauty from her pre-programmed slumber? Such is the set up for the new sci-fi/romance movie, Passengers. Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as star-crossed lovers who must negotiate the bitter realities of premature reanimation, the film is a master course in male/female relational dynamics in survival situations. The two stars have tremendous screen chemistry and nearly carry the entire movie by themselves—nearly. Michael Sheen and Laurence Fishburne play side characters who offer stellar support to the central couple, providing them with much needed advice and experience…and bridge access. There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe Lawrence and Pratt’s performances, so I’ll move on to an area of the movie I can critique. As is the case with many movies these days, the writing here is a mixed bag. Screenwriter Jon Spaihts is exceedingly adroit at evincing character motivations and habits and has skillfully infused the film with a tremendous amount of humanity despite its sterile, mechanical trappings. There’s a firm grasp of human relationships in the movie and the characterizations are flawless down to the most infinitesimal nuance. The romance subplot is sweet without being saccharine—the scenes where Aurora (Lawrence) and Jim (Pratt) have their first breakfast and first date are real gems. Commentary on class structure is cleverly woven into the narrative, like when we see Jim’s standard breakfast placed alongside Aurora’s Gold Star breakfast. The fact that Jim is an engineer and Aurora is a writer who comes from a family with means and status also addresses the inequities of humanity’s current caste system. Arthur (Sheen), the robot bartender, dispenses many keen observations on the human condition along with clever quips which add the appropriate amount of humor to this mostly serious film. Whereas Arthur brings the comic relief, Gus Mancuso’s (Fishburne) tragic sidebar furnishes the film with poignant pathos. The scenes where Aurora gives Jim the silent treatment are deftly crafted by Spaihts and expertly acted by Lawrence, who brings these scenes to life with startling realism (as any man who’s ever been spurned by a woman can attest). The prospect of dying alone in space versus the ethical dilemma over reviving a potential companion (which will consign her to a life of isolation) is the crux of the film and the implications of Jim’s fateful choice have profound ramifications on the entire story. One of the movie’s subtly stated motifs suggests that when our life’s aspirations go unrealized it’s how we choose to cope with our Plan B existence that defines us as individuals. Ultimately, Aurora (an overdetermined sci-fi name?) gets to write an exclusive, historic story, but it isn’t the one she had originally envisioned. Sadly, powerful takeaways like this one are overshadowed by contrived crises (like the escalating calamities that comprise the film’s conclusion), plot inconsistencies (Jim can browse personal personnel files and borrow a space suit, but is denied access to the bridge and can’t order a decent breakfast) and the movie’s Achilles’ heel…derivative storytelling. Aside from its “Adam and Eve in Space” premise, Passengers weaves elements from many other movies into its narrative tapestry. The most obvious thematic antecedent to this film is Titanic (1997). Both stories feature an upper class woman and a lower class man who fall in love on their way to a new world, but their ship encounters a dangerous obstacle along the way which threatens their survival. The obstruction in Titanic is an iceberg; here it’s an asteroid field. Perhaps the biggest source of inspiration for this film is WALL-E (2008). Both films feature long-range, resort style space vessels (with similar names—Axiom in WALL-E and Avalon here) which are conveying humans to a new planet since Earth is in a state of decay. These movies also employ an antagonistic autopilot which serves as a hindrance to our heroes. Additionally, Jim’s thrilling leap into space is reminiscent of WALL-E’s frolic among the stars. The final point of comparison between these films is that their scores have a similar style, which is fitting since the composer for both films is Thomas Newman. In addition to its pastiche plot, Passengers has an overwrought resolution, which is merely a series of near-death scrapes designed to produce a heart-pounding climax. This gimmicky ending is unnecessarily commercial and is incongruous with the rest of the film, which is essentially a big budget art film. A more contemplative denouement was in order here—one where we meet Jim and Aurora’s progeny and where we hear Aurora reading an excerpt from her book in a V.O. narration as the Avalon arrives at Homestead II. This emotionally complex and thought-provoking yarn deserved that kind of powerhouse finale—the extant epilogue is pat and merely satisfactory. Final thought: have you ever seen a more breathtaking pool? Or swimmer?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones
December 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Rogue One
The only #OpeningCrawl you’re gonna see is in my last tweet. #Spoiler
“Trust the Force.” Yes!
#TheForce
“You’re confusing peace with terror.”
#GalenErso #GreatLine
“We have a long ride ahead of us.” Don’t you mean flight?
#SawGerrera
#PlanetKiller aka #DeathStar
“Congratulations, you are being rescued.” LOL
#K2SO
#BailOrgana sighting.
“I find that answer vague and unconvincing.” Hilarious!
#K2SO
#SawGerrera needs to breathe oxygen...he’s a #LightSide version of #DarthVader.
How the
#Frack did they make that guy look just like #Tarkin?
“Hey, you just watch yourself.” Ha!
#InsideGag
“Rebellions are built on hope.”
#RebelAlliance
#Wampa sighting. They’re pretty good in a fight.
Why don’t they let the pilot steer the ship instead of K2SO?
“You’re a rebel now.”
#K2SO #RebelAlliance
“You might as well be a stormtrooper.” Ouch!
#Stormtrooper
“Be careful not to choke on your aspirations.”
#DarthVader #KillerLine #ForceChoke
“The time to fight is now.”
#JynErso Yes!
“There is no Rogue One.” There is now.
“We’ll find a way to find them.”
#JynErso #DeathStar #DeathStarPlans #StarWars
#Stormtroopers are so dull...they’re still talking about the T-15. #T15
The
#DeathStar can jump to #Hyperspace? That’s new.
#R2D2 and #C3PO sighting.
The
#ShieldCrash scene is spectacular.
This mustached
#XWing pilot is boss.
These
#TIEFighters are as thick as mosquitoes in #Alaska during summer.
The
#StarDestroyer collision is magnificent. #Hammerhead
I see a pale
#DeathStar rising.
“Hope!” A new hope.
#PrincessLeia
#StarWarsRogueOne or #TheOneWhereTheyAllDie
Final analysis: an effective “bridge” adventure leading up to
#ANewHope that succeeds by taking risks.
Though weak on character development, the
#Dune style planet-hopping & intense action scenes compensate.
2 1/2 out of 4. A unique, stand-alone chapter in the #StarWars saga that is choked by its action scenes.

In a galaxy far, far away… There was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Taking place between Star Wars Episodes III and IV, Rogue is a unique entry into the Star Wars canon. That last word was specifically selected since the film’s subtitle suggests an ancillary or non-canonical Star Wars adventure. Even though Rogue One is an official chapter in the saga, many of its components have conspired to make it seem otherwise. This notion is bolstered by the fact that most of the characters in the film are new to the Star Wars universe and that, for the first time in franchise history, the spotlight has largely shifted away from the Skywalker family. Also, the absence of the Fox Fanfare, the introductory phrase (see my first sentence), the opening crawl and the inclusion of a new title screen (which looks like a cheap knockoff of the iconic golden graphic), all earmark Rogue as an off-format, stand-alone Star Wars film. Additionally, the man calling the shots, Gareth Edwards, is also a newcomer to the series—as well as to directing in general since the only notable film he’s helmed is the God-awful Godzilla (2014). Oh, and lest we forget, an indelible part of what makes Star Wars so magical is the majestic, transcendent music of John Williams. Rogue is the very first Star Wars film to feature a score by someone other than Williams: fresh off of a stint for the other major sci-fi universe (Star Trek Beyond), Michael Giacchino has taken the baton from the maestro. I’ve been critical of Giacchino’s previous efforts, particularly his work for the new Star Trek movie series, so I listened to this score with an extremely critical ear. In my estimation, Giacchino has crushed it like a trash compactor. Giacchino’s orchestrations have captured the essence of Williams’ signature sound (on some cues you’d swear Williams had written the chart) without outright mimicking it, which is to his credit. All of the abovementioned elements have established Rogue’s distinctiveness from the trilogy films which brings us back to that thorny issue of canonicity. Aside from raising concerns over Rogue’s status as a legitimate Star Wars film, the word canon also has a religious application here. In theological terms, Rogue is an intertestamental (between the Old and New Testaments in the Bible) or apocryphal (meaning non-inspired or spurious in nature and not to be included in the canon of scripture) tale. Biblical allusions also extend to the main team of rebels in the movie (which some could argue comes too soon on the heels of that other film about a team of misfits who defended a dusty village from evildoers on a different frontier in the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven). Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) both in function (preparing the way for the rebellion) and appearance, is a type of John the Baptist, while Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), in the way she gathers disciples for a mission of mercy to save the universe from the tyranny of the Evil Galactic Empire (Spoiler: to say nothing of her ultimate sacrifice), is a type of Christ. The mesa-top community on desert planet Jedha (too similar to Jedi?) also has a religious connection since it resembles the ancient city Masada, a Jewish fortress that was recaptured by the Roman Empire in the first century. Here, Jedha, the site for an early battle in the film, is occupied by a different kind of Empire…one that dispatches its stormtroopers to patrol the streets of the city and maintain order with blasters and tanks. The image of a Star Destroyer hovering over the besieged city is a striking visual that instills a feeling of dread as the citizens below are made to live under the ever-watchful eye of their merciless overlords. The fact that Jedha was filmed in Jordan, part of the Holy Land, further adds to its spiritual mystique. Religious readings aside, the story contains many other aspects that are ripe for analysis. I’ve distilled all of my various opinions and criticisms into three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly. Just for fun, let’s work backwards. The Ugly award definitely goes to the movie’s computer animated visages of two vintage Star Wars characters—one from each side of the Force. Though shot in appropriately dim interiors (which actually helps to veil the artifice), the Dark Side character came out fairly well, despite being a shock to the system at first glance. By contrast, the Light Side character is shot in a bright room and simply looks awful—the effect is similar to dropping CG Tintin (from 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin) into a room full of live action actors. It’s so painfully obvious the character isn’t organic that it sends the audience’s suspended disbelief crashing to the ground and completely ruins the moment, which, incidentally, is the final scene in the film. CG aliens seem to hold up fairly well over time (Jar Jar Binks is annoying as poodoo, but he’s brilliantly realized), but will these CG humans look tackier than they already do as time and technological advances render them more and more obsolete, like the CG characters from the 80s? Leading off the Bad category is our old nemesis…anachronistic technology. Why is it that the creative forces (directors George Lucas, J.J. Abrams and now Edwards) behind each new Star Wars film can’t resist the urge to create new ships and technology, heedless of how that technology may cause aggravating anachronisms, like when R2-D2 suddenly sprouts leg rockets and takes flight in Episode II when no such ability exists in the later films? Here we have obsidian Death Troopers as well as a host of new ship designs, including: U-wing fighters, Hammerhead corvettes and TIE Strikers. Since the events of Episode IV occur directly after this film, where are all of these vessels in the original trilogy? Are we to believe that all of the new ships, on both sides of the conflict, are mothballed the moment the final battle ends? This conspicuous incongruity underscores the same highly criticized issue that plagued the prequels since many of the ships here look newer than the ones in the later films (Episodes IV-VII). Another anachronism involves one of the new droids, K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), which is essentially C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) on steroids. Whereas Threepio is fussy and loquacious by bent and programming, K2 is a sarcastic sidekick with a malfunctioning tact subroutine. So why is K2 in the Bad category? For starters, K2 is far more advanced than any other droid ever created for the series, including those manufactured decades into the future (like BB-8). Additionally, wisecracking computers (albeit shipboard ones) have been done ad nauseam in sci-fi TV (Red Dwarf and Tripping the Rift) and books (the Star of the Guardians series by Margaret Weis), to name just a few. Shifting back to living beings, the only disappointment in the cast is Whitaker’s Gerrera (a younger version of the character first appeared in The Clone Wars animated series). Not only is Gerrera’s raspy, high-pitched voice annoying and wildly inconsistent from scene to scene, but it makes him sound like he has a thermal detonator shoved up where the sun doesn’t shine (even on Tatooine). Though clearly intended to be a colorful character, Gerrera is a campy caricature, made utterly laughable by a goofy Jamaican accent, finger-in-a-toaster coif and mock earnest dialogue (his line “What will you do when they catch you?” sounds like an alternate lyric for the main theme of the Cops TV show). Gerrera’s cartoony characterization is an egregious waste of Whitaker’s time and talents—after all, he is an Academy Award-winning actor (The Last King of Scotland). Now seems like an appropriate time to ask why so many characters in the Star Wars universe have asthma? Vader, Grievous and now Gerrera, all have respiratory issues. And while waxing nitpicky, why did Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) make his design flaw inside the Death Star so difficult to exploit (only someone strong with the Force can accomplish the task)? Instead of putting pilots through the trouble of maneuvering down a narrow trench, avoiding turret fire, evading speedy TIE fighters and launching a proton torpedo into a two meter wide exhaust vent, why didn’t Galen just program a virus that could cause a cascade failure inside the Death Star? Thanks for nothing, Galen. Rogue is replete with such plot contrivances, all of which are designed to shoehorn this film into the extant film series. In fact, the entire narrative is a Dune style planet-hopping scavenger hunt where (hypothetically speaking) the team has to pick up an item at Planet A and plug it into a device found on Planet B in order to receive a transmission from Planet C, etc. Though this intergalactic pinball game plot is tedious, it does bring back the excitement of having a good old-fashioned adventure in a wide-open universe, plus it’s a real thrill to see the origins of the MacGuffin that was so vital to the storytelling success of Episode IV. And finally, the Good (or merely acceptable). Aside from the inane portrayal of Gerrera, the movie’s performances are solid down the line. Mikkelsen is a tremendous actor known for playing heinous villains (Casino Royale, Doctor Strange and the titular cannibal in TVs Hannibal) who is cast against type here as a conflicted scientist. Much like his role in Strange, Mikkelsen delivers a memorable performance despite limited screen time. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and his loyal sidekick Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) provide plenty of comic relief in the film and are essentially flesh-and-blood versions of droids R2-D2 and C-3PO (who make a brief appearance here), which are based on the main characters in Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), a film that greatly influenced George Lucas’ screenplay for the original Star Wars (1977). Jones (The Theory of Everything) brings the optimal mixture of vulnerability and pluck to the lead role of rebel upstart Jyn, Galen’s daughter. However, due to her cursory back story, Jyn (the second female lead in a row for the franchise, which was surely mandated by diversity-embracing Disney), is a far less effective leading lady than Rey (Daisy Ridley) from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). For proof of this, look no further than Jyn’s Aragorn style, pre-combat speech, which fails to inspire because we barely know her and she barely knows her team. Since the plot is merely a chain of episodes where characters run around shooting things in meaningless action scenes, there’s little emotional investment on the part of the audience (indeed, the story left me largely unmoved). The movie’s dearth of significant background details on the motley team of rebels has forged an ensemble of disposable characters—they serve their function in the story and then are thrown aside in the most expeditious and contrived manner conceivable. Spoiler: Even though none of these characters show up in the original trilogy, why was it necessary for all of them to die? Couldn’t some of them have survived and continued to serve the Alliance in supporting roles during the Battle of Yavin and beyond? And speaking of the first Death Star assault, clips of some of the pilots from Episode IV are woven into this movie’s climactic space battle. Though these excerpts are clever Easter eggs for diehard fans, they do become gimmicky from overuse. One of the new faces seen during the cosmic conflict is that of General Merrick (Ben Daniels), an ace pilot who adds some panache and humor to what could’ve been just another “Stay on target” dogfight. Other familiar faces from the Episode films appear here, including: the appropriately aged Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), the slightly younger Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and the different face, same beard General Dodonna (Ian McElhinney). Intertextual nods to the other Star Wars films abound here, like Galen’s “Help me Obi-Wan” style holographic message and the recurring gag line, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” The planet concepts in the film, especially Nordic Grange and tropical Scarif, are among the finest ever conceived for the series. After considering all of Rogue’s pros and cons, the movie’s success as an entertainment comes down to its thrill ride finale. The typical movie ending features a wrap-up after its climactic events. As an exception to practically every movie ever made, Rogue sustains its pulse-pounding action right up to the last scene since everyone who’s seen Episode IV knows exactly how this movie will end. As such, the last five minutes of this film are guaranteed to leave you gasping for air, which is ironic since one of the ongoing themes in the film is labored breathing; be it Gerrera’s reliance on a respirator or ambitious Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) finding himself on the wrong end of a Force choke. It’s fitting, then, that for all its flaws and inconsistencies, Rogue is a breathtaking film. So now it’s time to head back to the future for next year’s Episode VIII. See you in line.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (PG-13)

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Directed by: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tom Cruise
October 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jack Reacher 2
“One guy took ‘em all out in like seconds.” #JackReacher
90 seconds until a bad cop is arrested.
#MagnificentProphecy
“I woke up one morning and the uniform didn’t fit.”
#CareerChange
“I don’t like being followed.” Yep, that’s daddy’s little girl.
“Welcome back to the Army, major. You’re under arrest.”
#PlotTwist
“It’s time we stop running, and start hunting.” Yeah!
#GameOn
“You’re very intense.”
#JackReacher
“All you contractors go to the same barber?” LOL
#GreatLine
“Never underestimate the charm of a seedy motel.” Ha!
#SeedyMotel
“I don’t like being followed.” Hmm. Seems to me I’ve heard that before.
“People talk to me. It’s a thing.” Nice tip of the hat to
#HowIMetYourMother. #ItsAThing
“Now the numbers add up.”
#PureOpium
Bad guy gets hosed by Danika.
“It means we’re dead already.” Daddy/Daughter code.
Girl’s got
#PhoneDrop skills.
Final analysis: a solid follow-up to the first film with some new characters and challenges.
Rating:
3 out of 4. Drags at times, but the action scenes are well executed. Cruise keeps cruising.

Based on Lee Child’s novel series, the first Jack Reacher (2012) movie introduced audiences to the title character, an anti-establishment, off-the-grid, ex-military drifter whose MO is cracking skulls while defending the little guy from evildoers. The follow-up film, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, is a diverting, if not life-altering, sequel that finds Reacher (Tom Cruise) on the run from the military he once served as well as from his past; one of his former conquests had a daughter and is claiming that he’s the father…fourteen years after the supposed deed. To a former Special Forces lone wolf like Reacher, outrunning the MPs is a far less daunting challenge than raising a teenager. Fortunately, he gets some significant support in dealing with his alleged daughter, Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh), from a falsely accused Army officer, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders). Together, Reacher, Turner and Dayton try to stay one step ahead of their pursuers while attempting to uncover an illegal arms racket inside the military, which will exonerate Turner. The story’s climax features a protracted chase sequence through the crowded streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras—an action set piece that’s been done to death by now but somehow still manages to entertain. The scenes where Reacher says goodbye to his new-found friends are touching without being overly schmaltzy, which is consistent with Reacher’s laconic persona. The movie closes with Reacher thumbing a ride on the side of a highway—moving on to his next adventure like an Old West cowboy heading off into the sunset. Aside from some new characters and a few new scenarios, there really isn’t anything here that wasn’t in the previous movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for fans of the first film who just wanted more of the same in the sequel, but those seeking something other than just a reheated story may find this film wanting in the creative department. On the plus side, the acting is solid across the board: Smulders’ pluck is a plus as is Yorosh’s naïve self-assuredness. Cruise is satisfactory in the title role but doesn’t bring anything extra to the part this time, he just hits his marks and delivers his lines…and runs. Running has become a staple of every Cruise film; partly because he’s good at it and partly because a certain segment of his fan base really enjoys it. Here, Cruise is joined by the svelte Smulders on a few of his mad dashes—just to provide equal opportunity for ogling spectators. Although there are a few witty one-liners in the film, like Reacher’s pre-clobber comment about a thug’s barber, the proceedings are mostly serious and could’ve used more humor to counterbalance the dramatic and action beats. The fight sequences, coordinated by director Edward Zwick, are top-notch, yet feel like a retread of the multi-assailant melees seen in the prior movie. Even though Reacher 2 is an adequate sequel, has it done enough to extend the franchise into a trilogy? And if so, will audiences even show up for a third installment, or have they already decided to Never Go Back?

Doctor Strange (PG-13)

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch
November 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Doctor Strange
The opening fight scene is like #Inception on speed.
“The man charted a top ten hit with a flugelhorn.” Good point.
#ChuckMangione #FeelsSoGood
The
#StrangeTechnique. Is that in #KamaSutra?
There goes his surgeon’s hands. Time for a
#CareerChange.
“This isn’t medicine anymore, it’s mania.” Listen to her,
#Strange.
#Strange’s scribbled signature is still more legible than most doctor’s.
Good news:
#Strange got his watch back. Bad news: it’s broken.
“Just how experimental is your treatment?” Don’t ask.
“Have you seen that before in a gift shop?” Ha!
#Multiverse
“Study and practice.” Something
#Strange is all too familiar with.
#SlingRing #Strange can’t even muster a sparkler.
“How’s our new recruit?” Cold.
#Everest
“They really should put a warning before the spell.” Hilarious!
#WarningLabel
“Mr. Doctor.” Ha!
#MrDoctor #MrDr
“Time is the true enemy of us all.” True that.
#Kaecilius
The
#Astral fight in the hospital is mind-blowing. A true original.
The mop falling is hilarious.
#MopFall
#MasterStrange Has a nice ring to it.
“That is hilarious!”
#StanLee sighting.
“It’s not about you.”
#TheAncientOne says. Also the opening line of #ThePurposeDrivenLife by @RickWarren.
“I’ve come to bargain.” Ad nauseam.
Final analysis: a mind-bending adventure with just as much philosophy and metaphysics as action.
#Marvel should stop making movies, because they’ll never top this.
Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4. #Cumberbatch shines in an #Inception meets #HarryPotter tale of healing and heroism.

As one of the lesser known characters in the Marvel panoply, Doctor Strange is an altogether different kind of hero since his body is broken and he possesses no superhuman abilities. In lieu of innate powers (or acquired ones like from the bite of a radioactive spider), Strange must rely on his mind, specialized physical training and amassed knowledge of the mystical world that surrounds us and penetrates us (oops, wrong movie). Strange, the forty-third (some lists say fifty-sixth, but who’s counting) Marvel movie, isn’t directly connected to the Avengers—despite the surprise cameo during one of the two ending credits bonus scenes—or any other team or stand-alone hero in the Marvel pantheon. At first glance, the movie appears to be a mélange of narrative devices and stylized shots from the extant body of sci-fi and superhero films, especially the works of Christopher Nolan. The most obvious antecedent to this film, particularly in how its characters can bend cityscapes into Escher-esque labyrinths, is Inception (2010). However, instead of merely manipulating urban architecture, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his fellow spell-casters can terraform structures at will, making floors drop downward into a pit or heave upward into a giant mound while also causing rooftop tiles to undulate like the scales of a slithering serpent. The movie appropriates Nolan’s malleable metropolis concept and kicks it up several billion notches by staging protracted, pulse-pounding action sequences in, on or atop morphing, collapsing buildings. The results are, in a word, mind-blowing. These action set pieces seem readymade for a video game, which you can bet is already in development and will arrive in stores just in time for Christmas. Another tip of the hat (or cowl) to Nolan’s films is Strange’s martial arts instruction, which mirrors Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) training in the first act of Batman Begins (2005): Liam Neeson’s immortal necromancer Ra’s al Ghul is replaced in this film by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. The Ancient One and her team of sorcerers control three Sanctums (New York, London and Hong Kong) which are linked by portals that open like the shimmering threshold (sans circular frame) of the titular device from the Stargate TV series and original 1994 movie. There’s also a heavy quotation of the Harry Potter films here in the way Strange learns how to conjure weapons and shields with the incantation of ancient spells. The list of comparisons between Strange and other blockbuster franchises is extensive, but suffice it to say, this film owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to its creative progenitors. That doesn’t mean that Strange is derivative though. Much more than a standard sci-fi/fantasy pastiche, Strange is an amalgamation, indeed a culmination, of the finest story and visual elements the genre has to offer, mounted with lavish detail and delivered as a bold, new vision of what a superhero film can achieve artistically. And while handing out plaudits, let’s not forget the movie’s sterling acting. Cumberbatch is unequivocally masterful at bringing Strange to life. Few actors could modulate from pompous surgeon to physically and mentally broken seeker to whole and fully-actualized hero with such deftness (the only person that even comes close is Harrison Ford, who negotiates a similar character trajectory in the 1991 drama Regarding Henry). Cumberbatch is one of the finest actors of our generation and was the optimal choice to play Strange…the fact that he looks the part only serves to enhance the role. The rest of the cast is equally effective, especially: Rachel McAdams as Strange’s long-suffering girlfriend, Swinton as his mysterious mentor, Chiwetel Ejiofor as his upperclassman trainer and Mads Mikkelsen as former Ancient One initiate turned evil (a la Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars and Lucifer from the Bible). Mikkelsen, who played the villain in Casino Royale (2006) and the eponymous cannibal in TVs Hannibal (2013-2015), is sufficiently menacing here as Kaecilius, a Sith-like henchman whose skin-crawling mystique comes complete with a thick European accent and ashen rings around his eyes. Aside from the movie’s visual splendor and fine performances, the element that elevates Strange far, far above the finest films Marvel has produced to date is its finely-crafted story. Strange is perfectly paced and contains an almost alchemic balance between character beats and action sequences. After a condensed origin story and training section, Strange encounters Kaecilius for the first time about halfway through the film. This first-rate action sequence is an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter since everyone in the audience knows full well that Strange is nowhere near ready to take on the wicked wizard all by himself. This lopsided sorcerer’s duel is basically like an alternate version of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, where Luke, not Obi-Wan, confronts Darth Vader on the Death Star. However, with his minimal training in the Force at that point, I doubt the farm boy would’ve fared as well versus the Dark Lord as Strange does here against Kaecilius. To counterbalance its many glum and globe-shattering passages, the film offers several humorous asides, like when Strange borrows books from the closely-guarded library. But these sporadic moments of levity are quickly relinquished for more pressing plot points or metaphysical musings. One such subplot foregrounds a variation of Taoism where an otherwise virtuous person requires a little dark energy in order to live long and prosper. This, and many other thought-provoking scenes, affirm Strange’s status as a master course in philosophy (as well as religion and ethics) since it makes us question everything about the world around us and, indeed, the very nature of our own existence and purpose. This is decidedly heady material for a superhero adventure, and I for one am completely sated from the four course meal (story) plus dessert (action sequences) I got for the price of admission. Strange is Marvel’s missing link: whereas all of the studio’s films boast immaculately choreographed, eye-popping action scenes (which serve as the majority of the plot in many cases) this movie actually features a story with some salience and heft. Strange tells its tale on a grand stage and envisages an even grander view of the universe and our place in it. One of the most dubious comic-to-movie adaptations ever produced is, ironically, the film that has set the bar so high that the studio may never be able to match or supersede it. So now the burning question is: will Strange ever be eclipsed by a future Marvel film? Although it seems highly unlikely at this point, stranger things have happened.

The Magnificent Seven (PG-13)

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Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Denzel Washington
September 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Magnificent Seven
“This valley is ours.” For the moment.
It takes a special kind of lowlife to tomahawk a woman.
“They’re better off without you.” Ha!
“Would you like to see another magic trick?”
#IncredibleDisappearingEar
“Maybe my grandfather killed your grandfather.”
#Bonding
“I believe that bear was wearing people clothes.” LOL
Chisolm eats a deer’s heart. Iron rich breakfast.
“Consider this a recall.” Ha!
“Statistically speaking, they should’ve hit something.”
#ChrisPratt’s comedic timing is impeccable.
The “poking and sticking” scene is hilarious.
“I’ve always been lucky with one-eyed jacks.” Yeah!
#Bogue prays inside the church he burned down. That’s rich. #SinnersPrayer
Final analysis: a decent remake of the 1960 film and its
#Kurosawa antecedent.
Rating:
3 out 4 stars. Formulaic, but still enjoyable with some great action and non-stop humor.

Based on the 1960 classic Western of the same name—which itself is based on the Japanese film Seven Samurai (1954), directed by Akira Kurosawa—The Magnificent Seven is an adequate remake of the seminal tale of a group of misfits defending a terrorized town from a land-grabbing lowlife and his posse of thugs. Barring a few minor variations, the new Magnificent tracks closely with the storyline from the 60s film and is a crowd-pleasing, yet safe, follow up. In the leading role is Denzel Washington, who plays Chisolm, the counterpart to Yul Brynner’s Chris Adams. Whereas Steve McQueen played the sidekick role with a sense of humor as dry as the original’s dusty desert setting, Chris Pratt’s cardsharp serves as a joke-a-minute funnyman in the new film. Ethan Hawke’s reluctant gunfighter mirrors Robert Vaughn’s shell-shocked sharpshooter, while Byung-hun Lee’s laconic, knife-throwing assassin resembles James Coburn’s similarly drawn character in the vintage version. Similarities between new/old members of the ragtag team diverge at this point with the diversity award going to the new film for including a black, a Mexican and a Comanche (along with an unofficial eighth member in the spirited widow, played by Haley Bennett) in the titular septet. Eli Wallach (in brownface) played the Mexican heavy, Calvera, in the 60s version, but here, Peter Sarsgaard plays the stone-cold Caucasian villain, Bartholomew Bogue. Another story deviation from the 60s movie, which was set mostly in Mexico, is that all of this film’s action takes place north of the border. The movie’s sets, props and costumes are all period appropriate, as would be expected, and the southwestern landscapes (shot in Arizona, Louisiana and New Mexico) are simply gorgeous. My one critique of Antoine Fuqua’s (who previously worked with Washington and Hawke in 2001s Training Day) direction is that he doesn’t give the establishing shots enough time to “breathe” before rushing off to the next bar fight or shootout. Okay, so I lied, I do have another issue with Fuqua’s helming, namely the blurry fight scenes. For his action sequences, Fuqua uses the same handheld camera with rapid-fire edits that you’d see in a blockbuster action film…and the results are nausea inducing. Not only is this brand of action scene anachronistic for the film’s milieu, but it may prove annoying for many non-gamers or anyone over 40. Still, the multi-vantage melees are spirited, fun and don’t overstay their welcome…much like the film itself. Although the movie’s linear, cause and effect narrative is predictable from start to finish; it delivers enough thrills and laughs to keep the audience engaged throughout. Though it fails to live up to its name, the new Magnificent isn’t a bad way to spend 90 minutes. Now it’s time for this review to ride off into the sunset. Happy trails, partner!

Star Trek Beyond (PG-13)

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Directed by: Justin Lin
Starring: Chris Pine
July 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Star Trek Beyond
Kirk needs to leave the negotiating to Picard. He kinda’ sucks at it.
Nice twist with the perspective of the aliens.
Meaningful captain’s log. Great writing.
Chekov has the good stuff.
“Snow globe in space.” Ha! #YorktownStation
#YorktownStation looks like a mixture of #
Elysium and #Tomorrowland.
“It’s easier than you think to get lost.” #LostInSpace
Thank God for impulse engines.
The Enterprise falls to the planet like a #FlyingSaucer a la #
StarTrekGenerations.
“What’s your favorite color?” Hilarious!
U.S.S. Franklin. Plot twist.
Acidic boogers. Handy but nasty.
#VulcanTears There’s something you don’t see any day.
“He likes that seat.” LOL
“Find hope in the impossible.”
Radioactive jewelry. Top seller in the 23rd century.
“This is where the frontier pushes back.” #GoodLine
“Let’s hope this doesn’t get messy.” Ha!
“They’re called starships for a reason.” True enough.
Finally, seat belts on a starship.
Nice #
StarTrekV crew shot.
“To absent friends.” Poignant line with Chekov in the shot. #RIPAnton
Final analysis: a bold adventure that’s addled by a slow start and a slack script.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. The first deep space venture in the series has tons of action but not much meaning.

Aliso Viejo, CA.
Star Trek Beyond starring #ChrisPine. Directed by #JustinLin. The Fast & Furious Frontier.
“I ripped my shirt again.” Happens all time.
“It’s hard to feel grounded when you’re in artificial gravity.” #GoodLine
“Perfect eyesight and a full head of hair.” Here, here.
Now that’s how the #UniversalTranslator should work.
“We are not equipped for this manner of engagement.” Oh frack!
Hang on, Scotty.
Kirk shatters the main viewer with a few phaser blasts. Is it really that easy to break?
“Fear of death is what keeps us alive.”
Giant green space hand. Reference #
WhoMournsForAdonais? #StarTrek #TOS
“Take my house and make it fly.” #USSFranklin
“Beat and shouting.” The universe is saved by #HardRock.
The time lapse construction of the #Enterprise is brilliant.
Liked it a lot more the second time. Beyond beyond.
Lingering question: How did #MontgomeryScotty climb up the cliff? I guess engineers do have strong fingers.

Aside from rubber-suited aliens, space babes in tinfoil bikinis, psychedelic planet concepts and future-cool sets, props and costumes—all presented “in living color”—what established Star Trek as a pop culture phenomenon that’s endured for 50 years is the way creator Gene Roddenberry cleverly crafted his sci-fi adventure stories as morality plays; a strategy that not only covertly conveyed serious and controversial subject matter right past censors and studio execs to its intellectually curious audience, but also enabled the show to have a message during the mid to late 60s when lowbrow fare like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was ruling the airwaves. Whether in superlative episodes like “The Ultimate Computer” (the rise of the machine threatening our identity and humanity), mediocre fare like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (a goofy, yet poignant, anti-racism cautionary tale) and even abysmal efforts like “The Mark of Gideon” (an absurdist homily on the dangers of overpopulation), the original Star Trek was legendary at weaving messages into its storylines. That tradition, to a greater or lesser extent, has been maintained by the many movies and TV spinoffs, all of which have deftly reflected the zeitgeist of their respective decade while consistently challenging the notion and status of the human condition. So what does all of that have to do with the new film, Star Trek Beyond? Plenty, as you’ll see. The current Trek movie series, set in the Abrams-verse (officially known as the Kelvin Timeline), has catered to contemporary audiences by presenting largely action-driven plots with some humorous moments and a handful of meaningful character scenes thrown in for good measure. It’s a recipe that’s been successful up until now, but the dish has become more and more unsavory with each successive sequel. That assertion will only embolden Trek purists, who have looked down their noses at the new films for eschewing the series’ cerebral tradition in favor of cheap thrills and eye candy (both with respect to its attractive cast and cutting-edge FX). Beyond may be the closest of the new films to meeting the lofty requirements of those purists and will hopefully retain a large swath of the audience that came to the series for the first time due to the involvement of director J.J. Abrams and/or the fine cast of up-and-coming actors. Beyond is the first of the new films to venture into deep space, which makes it feel more like a traditional Trek movie than its predecessors. This is also the first original adventure in the series, since Star Trek (2009) was an origin story and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) was based on a “let’s bring back Khan” premise. There are many new characters (including: Idris Elba as foe Krall and Sofia Boutella as friend Jaylah) ships (USS Franklin, Krall’s ships and Yorktown space station) and filming techniques (the Enterprise cruising through warped space and the launch sequence at Yorktown where a camera is positioned in front of the ship’s neck as we see the station streaming past the accelerating ship) in the movie. Other welcome additions are seatbelts on bridge chairs and the most intelligent application of the Universal Translator (we hear the English translation over the alien’s native speech) in any Trek TV show or film. Though I haven’t been a fan of Michael Giacchino’s prior efforts for the series, his score here is very good—the cue when the Enterprise arrives at Yorktown (“Night on the Yorktown”) is equal parts majestic and euphoric. Yorktown’s sprawling landscape of sleek skyscrapers, transportation tubes, man-made lakes, grassy knolls, etc (all created with an effective blend of location filming in Dubai and CGI) is simply jaw-dropping. Indeed, its environs are an Escher-esque labyrinth of leaning buildings which tower over a well plotted and manicured surface of functional and recreational spaces; in essence, Yorktown is the architectural love child of the eponymous cities in Elysium (2013) and Tomorrowland (2015). Whereas the CG exteriors are gloriously gentrified, the interiors (both in Yorktown and on the Enterprise) are spare and dimly lit, especially in the early stages of the film. Yorktown is a true melting pot among the stars and is a grander scale version of what was attempted on Nimbus III, the so-called Planet of Galactic Peace in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), the very film that Ambassador Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) crew photo is from (seen during the movie’s denouement). This cosmic UN is the locus for a good portion of the proceedings, including the climactic action scene. Despite a slow start, riddled by the amusing but mostly superfluous teaser (think diplomatic mission to the Gremlin home world) and the silly impetus surrounding the distressed ship (which is an obvious trap to everyone but gung-ho Kirk), the plot settles in when the Enterprise departs Yorktown. As the Enterprise approaches the mystery planet, we’re treated to the movie’s first action scene…a frenetic, bone-jarring spectacle which combines the pacing and pyrotechnics of a Star Wars movie with the kind of protracted battle on an epic scale you’d see in The Lord of the Rings. Krall’s throng of ships represents the franchise’s most lethal threat since the dreaded Borg. Enemy vessels are typically larger, faster or more powerful than the Enterprise. Beyond presents a radical paradigm shift with respect to its alien adversaries…the swarm of thousands of two-man crafts, when executing coordinated attacks, can rapidly inflict massive damage to a starship. Even more frightening is the way the tiny pods can burrow into a ship’s hull and deposit its crew, generating an instant invasion force. Insidious. This “death by a thousand cuts” attack strategy presents a challenge unlike anything the Enterprise has ever faced. The realization that the Enterprise can’t defend itself against such an onslaught makes for a nail-biting, nerve-shredding confrontation; the first of many incredible action sequences in the film. But are there too many and are they too frenzied for a Trek film? Many Trek diehards would answer yes; that the Kelvin films have embraced the same kind of raucous, razzle-dazzle that’s become synonymous with the Star Wars movies. The real issue with the surfeit of action scenes in the new Trek movies may have less to do with personal taste or even in whether or not they dishonor Roddenberry’s original vision of a peaceful future than with the financial burden associated with bringing such sequences to life. Scott Mendelson shares some informed insights on the subject in his article for Forbes entitled, “A Cheaper ‘Star Trek’ Franchise Can Live Longer And Be More Prosperous.” Although I take issue with his argument that action scenes are everyone’s (blanket statement) least favorite aspect of a Trek movie, he’s spot-on when highlighting where the franchise’s priorities should be placed. “When people rave about a Star Trek movie, they are usually talking about the winning cast, the emotional payoffs, and/or the would-be social topicality. In short, nobody ever went to a Star Trek movie primarily for the action scenes.” Be that as it may, the Swarm Attack is a heart-stopping, jaw-dropping thrill ride. The battle finally concludes with the crew being deposited on an alien planet. The painstaking world-building on Altamid (word play on ultimate?) is truly exceptional—finally a strange new world (the red forest at the beginning of Into Darkness doesn’t qualify since it was only briefly shown in the teaser and had little bearing on the rest of the film). The location work, shot in the British Columbia, Canada, adds greatly to the immersive experience of being on some far-flung alien world filled with potential dangers lurking around every jagged boulder. Jaylah’s replicating device is a brilliant invention, as are her various security measures—one of which is a type of gas that can rapidly turn into a solid. Another clever visual is when Krall’s ships dock in staggered positions on tall poles, which makes them appear as branches on bizarre mechanical trees. As Krall’s legions deploy on their attack mission, they pass through a nebula that’s the perfect amalgamation of the Mutara Nebula from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and the Briar Patch in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998). The invasion plot itself harkens back to the Borg’s assault on Earth in Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and Shinzon’s plan to attack the same target in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). Nothing new here. The climactic showdown between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Krall is visually exciting but, sadly, is a standard issue resolution for an action picture. The revelation of Krall’s true identity is one of the movie’s nicer twists (although the lack of an explanation for his initial mutation and subsequent reversion is beyond contrived) and has the added advantage of foregrounding the only real message in the movie. It’s unclear if writers Pegg and Doug Jung, along with director Justin Lin, even planned for the movie to have such real-world relevance, but Krall’s backstory has a symbolic link to the war on terror. The potential of one of our own becoming radicalized and turning against us is a clear and present danger. With ISIS operatives entering (Trojan Horse style) the refugee populations flooding into Europe and America, this plot point has a direct bearing on current events in our terror-ravaged world. It’s unfair to say that the rest of the movie is devoid of meaning, because that simply isn’t the case. Indeed, there are many great character moments, like the spirited interchanges between Scotty (Pegg) and Jaylah and the always enjoyable good-natured ribbing between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban)—this movie features the best banter between the pair since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). The opening captain’s log is rife with keen observations on the rhythms of life in space and accurately depicts the ennui that sets in during a long voyage (and also contains some of the finest dialog in the film). Kirk’s confession to McCoy that he joined Starfleet on a dare is heartfelt as is the conversation between Kirk and Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo): Paris asserts that in deep space all a captain has is his ship and his crew. Since he loses both early in the film, Kirk must rely on his ingenuity, a new friend and an old ship in order to save the universe for another day. The private meeting between Spock and two of his kinsmen is also an emotional high point in the film and satisfactorily buttons up the Ambassador Spock storyline. However, aside from these finely written and well acted character scenes, where’s the overarching theme, the salient social commentary or the pulse on our progress as a species? The film does have some substance, but it’s tenuous—existing between, and in service to, the many action sequences. So here we have a head-scratching conundrum: Beyond thoroughly entertains and yet says nothing, means nothing and, in the end, amounts to nothing. Ultimately, the most meaningful moments in the movie are the two dedications during the end credits…to Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, two Trek heroes who passed away before this movie was released. Yelchin’s death has cast a pall over the possibility of a fourth film in the franchise, but should another movie receive a green light from Paramount, here’s hoping it will focus on story first and action second, since, as Mendelson rightly avers, “no one will complain if an otherwise good movie doesn’t have an extra phaser shoot-out or vehicle chase amid the drama.” Whereas Mendelson believes that “going cheaper and smaller” is the answer to ensuring series longevity, I maintain that such constancy will only be achieved by tapping into topics that resonate with the audience; narratives that challenge, inspire and instill hope for a better future. In other words, the kind of story that made Star Trek great from its inception.

The BFG (PG)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Mark Rylance
July 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The BFG
Sophie is right, the #WitchingHour is 3 AM.
Sophie is breaking all of her “Never” rules.
“That’s where you is, in Giant Country.” #GiantCountry
A collection of #DreamJars.
“I catch dreams.” Interesting occupation.
Beware of #SleepingGiants.
“All the secret whisperings of the world.” Welcome to #DreamCountry.
A Golden #FizzWizard. Like a non-corporeal #Tinkerbell.
#Togglehumper. Bad dream.
Never knew that dreams entered through the mouth.
“Naked at my wedding.” Interesting dream. #DreamJar
“Not in a month of Mondays.” #GiantSpeak
“I am your humbug servant.” Ha!
The #BFG doesn’t like coffee. #PinkiesUp
“I believe in the BFG.”
Sophie holds the #BFGs pinky. Sweet scene.
The bad giants get dropped off at #LukeSkywalker’s island.
Final analysis: a charming adaptation of #RoaldDahl’s story with a tremendous mo-cap performance by Rylance.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Spielberg’s first film for #Disney is a magical adventure suitable for the whole family.

Every time I see the title of this film the first thing that pops into my mind is “Big F*!@ing Giant.” As you might guess, that inappropriate moniker, despite being an accurate description of the titular titan’s size, isn’t even close to the proper designation for this family film. And not just any family film, mind you, but one based on the children’s book of the same name by Roald Dahl (best known for writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), produced by Walt Disney Pictures and directed by Steven Spielberg—his first stint for the Mouse House. So what does BFG really stand for? Big Friendly Giant, but you already knew that. The BFG (Mark Rylance in an astoundingly lifelike motion capture performance) is so christened by a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who catches a glimpse of the giant one night during her witching hour vigil…she suffers from insomnia. In order to preserve his anonymity, the BFG scoops up Sophie and whisks her away to giant country. As she adjusts to her new surroundings, Sophie must feel as if she were zapped by Professor Szalinski’s diminution ray from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) since everything inside the BFG’s cave dwelling is enormous to her—to aid in the visualization of such disparate proportions, Sophie can fit inside half of a snozzcumber, a slimy, bumpy version of a cucumber. Despite his fuddy-duddy mannerisms, Sophie quickly determines that the BFG is friendly, hence the name. However, she also learns that the other giants in the region are not so friendly because: 1. They’re “bean” eaters (giant speak for “beings” i.e. “human beings”) and 2. The BFG is only about half the size of the aggressive giants, which makes him a rather dubious protector for tiny Sophie. If this all sounds a bit overblown and silly, it is…what else would you expect from a kids’ flick with a giant in it? Though scenes featuring the brutish behemoths may be a tad frightening for the wee ones, most of the movie will appeal to preteens—anyone older may struggle to enjoy the film due to its dearth of character complexity, genuine jeopardy and realistic action. Some scenes, like when Queen Victoria (Penelope Wilton), her retinue and two canines create a carminative chorus during a breakfast banquet, will only elicit laughter from youngsters. Even sequences like when the bullying giants shove the BFG on top of a car and send him hurdling down a slope on a collision course with a vehicle descending the opposing hillside—essentially a giant-sized game of chicken—seem utterly inane and fail to generate any suspense since we know the BFG, as the literal title character, will find a way out of his predicament. The climactic confrontation, where military officers on British choppers capture and transport the man-eating giants to a secluded island, is daffy to the extreme—the giants don’t even put up a fight because any kind of graphic violence could tip the rating from PG to PG-13…and, poof, there goes half the audience. There’s a colossal disparity, in content and quality, between this film and the other Disney (Pixar) movie that’s out in theaters right now. Though Finding Dory is an animated film made for kids, it has many adult story elements. BFG, by contrast, is a live action (with CGI) movie that caters almost exclusively to kids. All of this to say that the movie’s target audience will surely embrace BFG while adults may derive more entertainment from counting the theater’s ceiling tiles than enduring the onscreen frivolity. None of these statements are meant to disparage the film’s creative vision. To be sure, there’s some real movie magic here—the sequence involving the Dream Tree is beautifully ethereal—and the direction, cinematography and production elements are all top-notch. However, despite its charm, whimsy and neck-craning, jaw-dropping scale, BFG will fail to service many adult spectators. So it turns out BFG does have an alternate meaning after all...Boring For Grownups.

Independence Day: Resurgence (PG-13)

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Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Liam Hemsworth
June 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Independence Day-Resurgence
The War of 1996. Won by a #Mac.
“You don’t get credit for cleaning up your own mess.” Touchy, isn’t he?
#JeffGoldblum uses the word “tenacious.” Reference #
JurassicPark.
“Welcome to the moon.” The scenery is kinda, eh.
The slippery floor line is amusing.
“Did we win?” #Data wakes up from a coma.
“Did the giant flag give it away?” Ha! #China
“We need to know who we just shot down.” Might’ve learned that first. #ShootFirst
“That is definitely bigger than the last one.” #ThatsWhatSheSaid
A controlled dive is still a fall.
#NewYorkCity is raptured.
“We have alien guns?” LOL
Alien within an alien. Gross.
“Why didn’t you tell me my butt was hanging out?” Hilarious!
#MakeThemPay
Amazing FX on the air strike.
“Their enemy is our ally.” Duh! And you blasted them to smithereens.
How fortunate that the environment inside the mother ship has oxygen for our heroes to breathe.
The alien queen in the bus’ side view mirror is reminiscent of the T-Rex in #
JurassicPark.
That’s it, fire your lasers up the alien queen’s bunghole. #VulnerableSpot
Final analysis: a predictable sequel with some amusing one-liners and superb visual FX.
Rating:
2 out of 4. Nice to see the original cast, especially @BrentSpiner who steals the show.

The first Independence Day (1996) was a frenetic and fun-filled alien invasion romp that won over audiences with its effective blend of action and humor along with a story that didn’t take itself too seriously (remember the scene where Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) tells President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) where all the extra money goes for each $30,000 toilet seat purchased by the government?). In the new ID, subtitled Resurgence, the charm has worn off and we’re left with a story so predictable and derivative it gives sequels everywhere in the universe a bad name. The story begins with a “shoot first, ask questions later” sequence where reactionary earthbound commander-in-chief (Sela Ward) orders twitchy fingered moon base commander (Chin Han) to destroy an imposing ball-shaped alien craft. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and the audience are the only ones smart enough to notice the radical variation in design between the space ball and the original alien mother ship; this discrepancy sets up a “surprise” twist later in the story. Soon after the mini Death Star is destroyed, a continent sized alien ship arrives and crash lands on Earth (which would create an extinction level event, but no matter). Taking a cue from Aliens (1986), this sequel also features an alien queen. The queen proves to be far craftier than her single-minded predecessors: she plans to drill into Earth’s outer core and extract the fluid there since her planet has already depleted its store of precious core matter (raiding Earth for its resources is just one of many alien invasion movie tropes). Since the aliens in the first film were simply out to conquer our world, this shift in strategy is more than a little curious (lest we forget, that movie’s tagline was: “They only want one thing…DESTRUCTION!). The whole notion that killing the queen will send the rest of her minions scattering like mice on the lower decks of the Titanic is also a new wrinkle that, though logical when applying hive dynamics, sets up a built-in resolution that’s obvious, anti-climactic and a colossal cop out by the writers. And speaking of narrative shortcuts, what about the oxygen atmosphere inside the mother ship...why can we breathe their air and the aliens can breathe ours? Oh, and follow this logic: we can’t destroy the mother ship, but we can destroy the ball-like vessel which is the greatest threat to the mother ship. Huh? Other than its plot oddities, this movie’s greatest drawback is its similarities to the original film. The aerial attack on the mother ship, the alien assault on Area 51, a solo pilot engaging in a suicide mission and refugees befriending each other out in the middle of a desert are all conventions established in the first film. The only new element here that has any real-world relevance is how humans use alien technology against the aliens in a twist on the events of 9-11. Besides the handful of returning characters, some new faces grace the sequel, including: pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), General Adams (William Fichtner) and too-young-to-drive Sam (Joey King). None of the movie’s characters are three-dimensional and most barely qualify as one-dimensional. Director Roland Emmerich’s patented “action over plot” methodology is in full force here as rapid succession conflicts curtail any meaningful moments or genuine character interactions. In fact, there isn’t a living, breathing character anywhere in the movie…the closest is Brent Spiner’s Dr. Brakish Okun who at least provides some color and humor to the proceedings. The one name conspicuously absent from the cast this time around is Will Smith (who wisely passed on this film in favor of the upcoming Suicide Squad). The indomitable swagger Smith exhibited in the first film is sorely missing in the sequel, which is replete with tepid performances. Likewise, for an end-of-the-world film, Resurgence is strangely dispassionate. Perhaps the fact that our heroes defeated the aliens once before has given them a quiet confidence that they can do it again. Be that as it may, the faced-with-extinction urgency that permeated the first film is nowhere to be found in this perfunctory plot which simply assumes that our heroes will kick the alien’s posterior regions by the two hour mark and that we’ll all live happily ever after…except for those inhabiting regions that were flattened by the mother ship, of course. This highlights another fallacy of disaster movies: who cleans up the mess, rebuilds civilization and recovers lost monuments once the dust has settled from an alien incursion? Maybe when the writers sift through the ruins of this movie they’ll find just enough original material to turn the franchise into a trilogy. If not, they should just leave the series to wallow in the heap of ashes that is this movie’s plot.

Finding Dory (PG)

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Directed by: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Starring: Ellen DeGeneres
June 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Finding Dory
The animated short #Piper is equal parts cute and brilliant.
“I suffer from short term memory loss.” Admitting it is the first step.
“What if I forget you?” One minute in and I’m already tearing up.
Is that #VWBug on the ocean floor #Herbie?
#StingrayMigration Gorgeous animation. #Pixar
“Go for distance.” Hilarious!
“I’m okay with crazy.” Dory’s been there and back a few times.
“No memories no problems.” But no meaning either.
“What would Dory do?” #WWDD
“Follow the shells.” An underwater version of Follow the Yellow Brick Road.
“Your orange friends are on their way to Cleveland.” They must be #Browns.
All shells lead to home.
“You remembered.” Heartwarming scene.
“There are no walls in the ocean.” #
FreeWilly moment.
“The best things happen by chance.” Dory’s guiding philosophy.
“Unforgettable.” Just like the movie.
Final analysis: just as enjoyable as the first film but for completely different reasons.
Rating:
3 out of 4. Though not as mesmerizing as the #FindingNemo, #Dory has even more heart. Superb sequel.

During the twenty-one years since Pixar released its first animated feature, Toy Story (1995), the animation studio has cranked out one hit after the next in an unparalleled feat of commercial and creative dominance. The studio’s highest grossing film (adjusted for inflation) is Finding Nemo (2003); the film was directed by Andrew Stanton and featured the voice talents of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. That formidable team has reunited in the sequel, Finding Dory, which has been thirteen years in the making. So let’s address the nagging question in everyone’s mind: is Dory as good as Nemo? Short answer…no. In some ways such a comparison is unfair since one of the main objectives in producing the first film was to prove that underwater (the most difficult of all environments to animate) sequences could be done, and done well, with CGI. The vibrant colors, virtual encyclopedia of fish species and gorgeous photo-realistic underwater environments made for an immersive viewing experience nearly unparalleled in cinema history (Nemo stands as the finest 3D film that isn’t). Whereas, the animation in Dory is still exceptional, the palette isn’t nearly as expansive, nor does it need to be since it’s a more intimate lost-and-found tale. So where did Dory go wrong? Unfortunately, it took a page out of parent company Disney’s book and followed the formula established in last year’s Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens, a virtual rewrite of Star Wars (1977), with a dash of Empire (1980) and Jedi (1983) thrown in for good measure. Likewise, Dory is a virtual reworking of Nemo, but in reverse: clown fish Marlin (Brooks) and son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are searching for missing Dory (DeGeneres) who, in turn, is searching for her parents Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton). Many characters from Nemo appear here, like manta ray school teacher Mr. Ray (Bob Peterson) and laid back turtle Crush (Stanton), and show up in sequences that are so similar to the ones in the original film they may cause feelings of déjà vu. This sameness is this film’s Achilles’ heel and recalls the foisted, perfunctory Radiator Springs scenes in Cars 2 (2011), which, despite offering ample contextualization and that warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia, ultimately created boredom from familiarity. Fortunately, most of Dory’s story redundancies take place early in the film. Some of the passages near the middle of the movie, like Marlin and Nemo’s various pratfalls as they make their way through the Marine Life Institute in search of Dory, are a tad pedestrian—even by animated movie standards—and just feel like filler until the movie’s two major reunions take place. But all is not lost as there are many things that recommend this film as a worthy follow-up to Nemo. Many of the new characters are welcome additions to the aquatic menagerie, particularly: Hank the curmudgeonly octopus (Ed O’Neill), Destiny the myopic whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), Bailey the concussed beluga whale (Ty Burrell) and Fluke the territorial sea lion (Idris Elba). The action-packed climax, where Dory and friends must rescue Marlin and Nemo from a Cleveland-bound semi truck is uproariously funny and recalls the frenetic action in the similarly-themed airport rescue at the end of Toy Story 2 (1999). Of course, as has become standard in Pixar movies, Dory contains plenty of hard-hitting emotional scenes, which, like the opening moments of Up (2009), will have grown men (like this one) tearing up all over the theater. Indeed, has there ever been a more pathos-inducing animated character than a tiny fish with short-term memory problems alone and lost in a gigantic ocean? The scene where tiny Dory, with her cute, quavering little voice, frets over forgetting her parents is absolutely heart-rending. The implications of this scene won’t be lost on parents of special needs children or on adults grappling with memory loss in their aging parents. However, there’s an even broader message here about the nature of memories and how vital they are in shaping our identity and reality. Deep subject matter for an animated film, but this is just proof positive that Pixar films are really made for adults, with just enough action and humor to keep the kiddies interested. In the final analysis, Nemo may be the finer film, but Dory has more heart. The sequel is truly A-Dory-ble! Here’s a thought to ponder: if the next film in the series takes another thirteen years to produce, the storyline may feature Nemo and Dory searching for Nemo’s dementia-stricken father in Finding Marlin. Poor taste since I’m writing this review on Father’s Day?

X-Men: Apocalypse (PG-13)

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Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: James McAvoy
May 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

X-Men Apocalypse
“A gift is often a curse.” Like #Hulk’s superpower.
Is this #
XMen or #Stargate? #AncientEgypt
Scott’s got problems with his eyes. Yeah, remember that comment about a gift being a curse? #Cyclops
Does #Magneto’s daughter have any of his powers?
#Cyclops splits #ProfessorX’s favorite tree in half. Instant enrollment.
#Magneto’s daughter recreates Hitchcock’s #TheBirds.
Thug becomes one with the wall. Amazing FX. #Apocalypse
World’s first mutant. #Apocalypse
Love the #TOS #
StarTrek scene on TV. #WhoMournsForAdonais?
Mystique the Mercenary. #Mystique
Scott gets some special glasses. #RayBan
“I’m blue.” Ha! #Nightcrawler
“My name is Magneto.” Yeah! #Magneto
“The third one’s always the worst.” Very true. #Ewoks
A rare non-comedic #StanLee cameo.
Why doesn’t Scott just fry the chopper and bad guys with his laser vision? #Cyclops
“I know what everybody feels.” What a burden. #JeanGrey
After losing his family, #Magneto breaks bad.
“Weapon X is loose.” #Wolverine
#JeanGrey #MindMelds with #Wolverine. She soothes the savage beast.
Embrace your powers.
“You’re in my house now.” Amazing mental duel. #Apocalypse #ProfessorX
“Unleash your power!” #JeanGrey
#DangerRoom Yay!
Final analysis: an entertaining yarn despite its slow pacing. Some memorable moments and cameos.
Rating:
3 out of 4. The best of the new cast #XMen movies. A more cerebral superhero film. Thank the Maker!

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, we’ve had three superhero showdowns within the last three months. First was the titular title fight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (in late March) followed by Captain America and allies vs. Iron Man and his cohorts in Captain America: Civil War (in early May) and now we have the epic confrontation between Professor X (James McAvoy) and his mutant students vs. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) and his cadre of brainwashed fiends in X-Men: Apocalypse (in late May). The fact that all three of these heroes-fighting-heroes movies were released during an election year is telling of a country divided along ideological lines and facing its most critical challenges in its 200+ year history. This movie is a sequel to 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past and is the third featuring the young cast (McAvoy’s team rather than Patrick Stewart’s). The film is directed by Bryan Singer; this is his fourth time at the helm of an X-Men picture. The script by Simon Kinberg clearly caters to fans over non-initiates as the narrative is laden with references to the comic books. The story itself is quite dense, juggling multiple characters and storylines for nearly two and a half hours—twenty minutes too long for my taste. Despite being a cerebral film with much to say about the current state of humanity, the story is riddled with problems. First of all, the film is embarrassingly derivative. Besides evoking both Stargate (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997) in its “Aliens Visit Ancient Egypt” opener, it also pilfers story elements from earlier X-Men films, a la the climactic confrontation between Professor X’s initiates and Apocalypse’s minions, which is similar to the clash of mutants at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Also, villains using Cerebro for their own nefarious purposes is nothing new either: reference X2 (2003). Magneto disrupting Earth’s magnetic poles to create mass destruction is just a larger scale cataclysm of the stadium drop in the previous film. Indeed, Apocalypse’s plan to remake the world to his design is similar to Lex Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey) dastardly plot to wipe out the Eastern seaboard by dropping a kryptonite-infused island into the Atlantic Ocean in Superman Returns (2006), an earlier Singer effort. Not all is lost here, as several topical storylines make this a worthwhile entertainment—apart from its mind-blowing action sequences. Since his design is to destroy the planet as we know it, Apocalypse is a type of terrorist leader. The scene where he rounds up the world’s nuclear arsenal and tosses it into space generates ambivalent feelings since we’d be safer without them so long as someone like Apocalypse doesn’t show up on our world. The destruction caused by the Apocalypse influenced Magneto also taps into 9-11 anxieties and the prevalent feeling (reflected in the rise of dystopian literature and media in our society) that an earth-shattering event is in our not too distant future. Ultimately, the two highest yield plot elements are Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) overcoming her fears and unleashing her mental fury—a girl power sequence that rivals Rey (Daisy Ridley) arming herself with the lightsaber and confronting Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)—and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) breaking bad after his family is accidentally killed. The scene where Apocalypse takes Magneto to confront his past at Auschwitz is another deeply affecting scene with some tremendous acting by Fassbender, who delivers the movie’s standout performance. This brings up an interesting question about the franchise’s decorated ensemble…how long will McAvoy, Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence stick around since their superstar status has afforded them more attractive and challenging roles than anything Marvel could hope to offer? And for that matter, how many more X-Men films will the forty-seven year old Hugh Jackman (who briefly appears here as Weapon X) make? Even though this is the finest of the new X-Men films, it still doesn’t approach the quality of the first two films in the series. Still, compared to the typical comic book film, the X-Men films are like Shakespeare by comparison. Oh, and on a side note, the next film will be the tenth in the franchise. And you know what the Roman numeral for ten is.

Alice Through the Looking Glass (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Bobin
Starring: Mia Wasikowska
May 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Wait a minute, is this the Alice sequel or the next #PiratesOfTheCaribbean movie?
“Time is a thief...and a villain.” #CaptainAlice
Wow, that’s quite a dress...looks like a butterfly threw up all over it.
Do six impossible things before breakfast. Alice is quite the overachiever.
The Matter of the Hatter. Subtitle.
The Hatter throws Alice out of his house. #DarkMatterHatter
#Unpossible. Similar to an #Unbirthday I guess.
“I am time.” Nice stache.
Time to go further #BackInTime.
“Hatting is a serious business.” #MadHatter
The #RedQueen kisses the #Jabberwocky’s leg. Ick!
A big kiss for the little Hatters.
The de-rusting FX are top-notch.
Final analysis: a mediocre follow-up to the uninspired original. Lacks Burton’s direction and Carroll’s vision.
Rating:
2 out of 4. Some decent creativity, but the plot falls down a rabbit hole into a rote, ridiculous realm.

This return to Wonderland, entitled Alice Through the Looking Glass, has all the regulars back from the first film—Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Anne Hathaway as her sister the White Queen, the late Alan Rickman as the blue butterfly Absolem, Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Matt Lucas as Tweedledee and Tweedledum—along with some notable newcomers like Sacha Baron Cohen as Time, Rhys Ifans as Zanik Hightopp and Hobbit alum Richard Armitage as King Oleron. The conspicuous name missing from the movie’s headliners is director Tim Burton, who merely serves as a producer on this film. The director this time around is James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014), and while it’s clear that the creativity doesn’t suffer from the change at the helm, the wit and whimsy so evident in many of Burton’s films is largely missing in Bobin’s trip to Wonderland. If you’re expecting this movie to closely follow Lewis Carroll’s book of the same name (technically Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There), you’ll be sorely disappointed. Just as the first film, Alice in Wonderland (2010), mashed up story elements from Carroll’s works, so too does the sequel. A prime example of this book-to-movie aberration is the Jabberwocky, which made its first appearance in the second Alice book but was introduced during the climactic confrontation in the first film. This brand of fairy tale pastiche, which serves as the movie’s narrative, blends original elements from the source material with made-up events, characters and situations in order to flesh out the plot and provide enough story sinew to hold together the many action sequences. The resultant tale is an uneven, tenuous and convoluted mess that has Alice jumping backwards and forwards through time, like a Victorian Sam Beckett, attempting to remedy events that threaten to destroy time itself…literally. The main plot points here are the search for the Mad Hatter’s family and the reconciliation between royal sisters, the Red and White Queens, and, as would be expected, both storylines are resolved with a cloying display of sentimentality. As for the movie’s creative elements, the Chronosphere is a nifty time travel apparatus but is just a fancier version of the titular time machine in H. G. Wells’ sci-fi classic. The expansive rooms containing the massive cogs that keep time running are appropriately gigantic, but are reminiscent of colossal clockwork structures in dozens of movies ranging from The Great Mouse Detective (1986) to Shanghai Knights (2003). Though the hodgepodge assemblages of spare parts that serve as Time’s assistants are clever contraptions, they certainly aren’t original (perhaps you remember the metallic sidekick Tik-Tok in Disney’s Return to Oz (1985) or the eponymous robot in Hugo (2011), which, incidentally, also co-stars Baron Cohen). These kinds of expedient, cut and paste production elements are the very epitome of what makes this film such a waste of talent and resources…it’s derivative and hollow (like so many other summer tentpole pictures). If there’s a silver lining here it’s that Depp’s creepy, walleyed Hatter is only in about half of the film and isn’t nearly as obnoxious as he was in the first film. Well, there you have it…Looking Glass is a mediocre sequel to an uninspired original. I’ve done my best to dissuade you from stepping through the movie’s magic mirror which will rob you of your hard-earned cash and extract two hours from your life that you’ll never get back.

Captain America: Civil War (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans
May 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Captain America- Civil War
What’s in the blue packets?
Nice shield ricochet #CaptainAmerica.
Thank you, #RedWing.
#ScarletWitch needs to work on her aim.
“There’s a correlation between generosity and guilt.”
“Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all.” So true.
“I’ll use the door.” Ha! #Vision
The #SokoviaAccords. Ah...now I know what they were talking about on #AgentsofSHIELD.
“Conflict breeds catastrophe.”
“The safest hands are still our own.” You’re in good hands with Avengers. #Avengers
Awesome midair motorcycle swap.
“Warmer than jail.” LOL
“Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth.” The seeds of civil war.
“I’m not the only Winter Soldier,” says Bucky. The others are Lucky, Ducky, Plucky and Klucky.
#Spiderling Ha! #SpiderMan
Let’s see, homework or a trip to #Germany? #SpiderMan
#CaptainAmerica kisses #AgentCarter’s niece. He’s a multigenerational lover.
“It’s your conscience. We don’t talk a lot these days.” Hilarious!
Nice #
TheEmpireStrikesBack reference #Spidey.
I’m missing #Hulk in this movie. It needed some #GreenRage.
“I’ll put you on hold...I like to watch the line blink.” Good one, #Stark.
#IronMan takes a shield to the heart. That round goes to #CaptainAmerica.
#TonyStank Ha! #StanLee sighting. #IronMan
Final analysis: an overlong and overstuffed actioner that actually has a lot of social relevance.
Rating:
3 out of 4. #CaptainAmerica gets upstaged in his own movie, which is really #Avengers3.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team of superheroes face off against Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and his super friends on an airport tarmac and maximum destruction ensues. The end. Well, there’s a little bit more to it than that, but you get the main gist of the story from that nutshell synopsis of Captain America: Civil War, the newest chapter in the Marvel movie panoply. Aside from the jaw-dropping action sequences, the movie has value in some of its character interactions, particularly Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) domestic scenes, and its topical subplot involving superheroes signing an agreement to refrain from using their powers a la The Incredibles (2004). Also lending the film some emotional heft is its too-real-for-comfort terror attack in Lagos, which is an echo of the Sokovia and New York City debacles in the Avengers films (and, of course, 9-11 in real life). An earlier assignment conducted by the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), which is told in a series of flashbacks, also provides some decent, intermittent intrigue and factors into the climax in a major way. The list of returning heroes is extensive (consult IMDB) but it’s really the new faces that add the most to the film, namely: William Hurt as Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross, Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther, Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter (Peggy Carter’s niece), Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Marisa Tomei as Aunt May Parker. The Spider-Man subplot works extremely well and provides hope that the impending re-reboot of the franchise will be successful (and how shrewd of Marvel to give us a preview of that movie here…they’re the undisputed masters of cross-pollinating properties). With the exception of a few amusing one-liners and the eye-popping FX, there really isn’t anything else to evaluate here…other than the fact that the movie needed Hulk and Thor, both of whom are conspicuously absent from the proceedings. If you’re a fan of these films you’ll probably enjoy this one too. Even though Captain America gets overshadowed in his own movie, Civil War has successfully moved the Marvel franchise forward to Avengers 3 and beyond. There are two bonus clips during the closing credits, so don’t leave early.

The Jungle Book (PG)

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Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi
April 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Jungle Book
The opening reminds me of the #JungleCruise ride at #Disneyland.
“Wolves don’t hide in trees.” Good to know.
Nice #TimeLapse photography of the canyon transitioning into its dry season.
“In some packs the runt gets eaten.” Survival of the fittest.
The animals give Khan a wide berth. Not the one from #
StarTrek. #ShirKhan. #WaterTruce
“You will always be my son.” #WolfHug
I love seeing the respect for #Elephants. Magnificent creatures.
#BlackPanther vs #Tiger. Which will win? #Catfight
That molting is as big as a tent. #Kaa is near.
Beware the #RedFlower.
“Trust in me.” When someone says that you normally can’t.
“That’s not a song, that’s propaganda.” Ha!
#ShereKhan’s object lesson of the deceptive #CuckooBird is quite the traumatizing #BedtimeStory.
One of #MowglisTricks saves a young elephant. Touching scene.
#KingLouie really knows how to bring the house down.
#Bear vs #Tiger. Now we’ve got a fight. #ShereKhan #Baloo
#ShereKhan is engulfed by the #RedFlower. Good riddance.
Final analysis: a modern take on #Kipling’s classic with superb voice performances and jaw-dropping #CGI.
A decent family film that sadly lacks the charm of the 1967 cartoon and the magic of the 1942 #Sabu classic.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. The target audience won’t be disappointed but adults may find fewer pros than Khans.

Director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man) reverent riff on Rudyard Kipling’s adventure classic The Jungle Book is a virtual remake of Disney’s 1967 kiddie feature only with blended live action and computer effects standing in for animated characters and locations. Though this film isn’t the sing-along sensation that the cartoon version is, a couple of the original songs can be heard here (“The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which is sung by Christopher Walken). However, the musical element is toned down and the action is ratcheted up in this particular Kipling outing. The film is also noticeably more adult than its pedestrian predecessor: both Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and King Louie (Walken) are far more menacing here. Although much of this film’s storyline was lifted right out of the 60’s flick, some story elements have been altered and/or new ones added to stretch out the action to a full-length feature. To whit, the Red Flower line in the “I Wan’na Be Like You” lyric is expanded into an entire subplot in this movie. Another new passage is where Baloo (Bill Murray) convinces Mowgli (Neel Sethi, who not only looks the part but delivers a pitch-perfect performance) into knocking down some large honeycombs to sate the bear’s enormous appetite. It’s an amusing sidebar, but is a poor substitute for the scenes where Baloo teaches Mowgli how to spar and when the two new friends float down the lazy river in the original. Those scenes were charming; the ones in this film are merely amusing. While contrasting the films, there’s no doubt that the gold star for visual splendor and pulse pounding action scenes goes to this film, due in large part to the eye-popping computerized renderings of the menagerie of jungle creatures. The catfight between Shere Khan and Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) is appropriately feral and frenetic and the scenes with giant python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) are effectively hair-raising. Sequences like the water buffalo stampede couldn’t have been achieved with such proficiency even a few years ago, much less with hand drawn animation techniques from the 60s. However, the superior visuals actually invite a possible criticism of this film. Since its narrative is so similar to the 60s animated feature, one wonders if this release was just an excuse to showcase the latest CGI—essentially a technical vehicle for the film’s FX. We’ve seen how green lighting a movie for the sole purpose of showcasing the latest visual effects has produced uneven or outright awful results, a la Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999). This movie certainly isn’t that bad, but it is a tad perfunctory, what with its stock characters and connect-the-dots plot. The finest aspect of the film is its ending, which is a radical departure from the 60s movie and actually has more in common with the 1942 Sabu classic since animals must flee the devastating advance of the Red Flower in both versions. Unfortunately, the new nail biting climax can’t remedy this rote remake. All of this analysis is moot, of course, since the movie’s target audience will embrace the film regardless of the fact that it can’t stand up to the quality of its forebears. And is that such a bad thing? This film has updated the brand and introduced this timeless tale to a whole new generation of potential fans. There’s no downside there. Hardened critics and Baudrillard can go take a hike…or get lost on a jungle cruise.

Allegiant (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Shailene Woodley
March 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Allegiant
“Are we going to do this?” Please don’t.
“Great leaders don’t seek power.” That rules out everyone running for president. #Election2016
The #RunUpTheWall sequence is exhilarating.
Why leave the beautiful forest for a radiated wasteland?
“The sky is bleeding.” #AcidRain
Hope they brought lots of drinking water. That red stream looks a bit dicey. #LiquidRadiation
I wonder if they have a spy camera inside the decontamination room. #PeepShow
“They’ve grown up watching you.” The #Voyeurism of spectatorship. Shades of #
TheTrumanShow.
#Tris is “pure.” I could’ve told you that.
“Help me save the world.” What’s the catch?
Four forays into the #Fringe. #KidCollecting
Off to #PureCity. Looks like #Coruscant.
“Chicago might forget its own name.” #MassAmnesia
Reddish gas fills the streets of #Chicago. Oh wait, it’s just smog.
Final analysis: a logical extension of the earlier films that’s quite a departure thematically.
The first truly #SciFi chapter in the saga with amazing technology and salient social commentary.
Rating:
3 out of Four stars. A satisfactory series capper that leaves us with plenty to mull over.

So it turns out this isn’t the final film in the series after all—Ascendant is slated for release next year. My bad. Guess I should’ve known that this type of popular YA book to movie series, a veritable cash cow for a studio like Lionsgate, would be milked for all it’s worth. Show business is a business, after all. For those unfamiliar with Veronica Roth’s teen novels of the same name, the main theme of the Divergent series is that a well intentioned social experiment can, and often times will, go horribly wrong. The adapted screenplays based on Roth’s works capture her cynical eye toward the future and her patented brand of cautionary tale which decries the dangers of any socialist structure similar to Adolph Hitler’s Germany in the 30s and 40s as well as predetermined societies where individuality is absorbed into a rigid caste system a la the one in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (it must’ve been in the ether that I selected two historical figures with the initials A.H.). The previous two movies in the series focused on the exigencies of life in a post-apocalyptic world rife with political corruption, social upheaval and the requisite quotient of teen angst/romance. Fortunately, in the third film, Allegiant, the series has grown up as characters are faced with bigger challenges outside the wall that surrounds bombed out Chicago (maybe one of Trump’s descendants built it). The sequence where the characters scale the wall is not only a riveting action scene it’s also the incident that kick-starts the story; everything up to that point is merely dry exposition with remedial, redundant squabbles among factions in the derelict districts of the Windy City. From the moment Tris’ (Shailene Woodley) boot touches the radiated soil beyond the wall, the movie morphs into a top rate sci-fi yarn, complete with high tech trappings and scathing social commentary. The meticulous world-building that went into crafting the photorealistic “alien” landscape known as the Fringe, a scorched wasteland where sojourners must avoid polluted streams and acid rain, is first rate. The film’s lavish metropolises, especially the sleek Pure City (think Coruscant meets Apple Store), are appropriately futuristic in design and appointments and are a stark contrast to the slagheap environs featured in the earlier films. Advanced technology, like the drones, spy rooms and cloaking shuttle, are clever, forward-thinking tech concepts that add a great deal to the reality and visual vitality of the film. The new addition to the cast is duplicitous David, played to perfection by Jeff Daniels. His portrait of an antagonist with clear-cut goals and a believable motivation is absolutely superb. Daniels’ genuine, steady-handed performance not only provides the story with necessary urgency and focus, but also raises the bar for the other performers, especially Woodley, who’s grown as an actor with each successive picture in the series. Though each of the ancillary characters is given a unique assignment in the film, none of them are granted much screen time. Even main character Four (Theo James) is relegated to back burner status for much of the movie as he frets over Tris’ safety. However, Four is present for some of the movie’s most memorable action passages including the horrific child kidnapping sequence. As for other prominent cast members: Caleb (Ansel Elgort) learns how to be a voyeur, Christina (Zoe Kravitz) struts around looking tough and Evelyn (Naomi Watts) helps Peter (Miles Teller) initiate a plan to mass brainwash the citizens of Chicago in a sequence reminiscent of Scarecrow’s fiendish plot to terrorize Gotham City (also Chicago in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy) with his fear gas in Batman Begins (2005). Even though Allegiant leaves the door wide open for a sequel, it could’ve ended right here as a trilogy. In fact, I think it would’ve been satisfactory to conclude the series right here with some questions remaining and with its moral lesson still hanging in the desert air. We’ll have to see if prolonging the series was a good decision or not…from Allegiant’s performance at the box office so far, it looks like the series might be running out of steam. And speaking of steam, what keeps those trains moving 24/7?

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck
March 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Batman v Superman
The slow mo descent of pearls is a nice visual.
There’s a reason why it’s called #CrimeAlley folks.
The tripod that hovers over #Metropolis is reminiscent of the alien vessels in #
WarOfTheWorlds.
#BruceWayne runs into a wall of smoke and ash. Shades of #9-11.
The #BatBrand. Similar to #Zorro‘s swashbuckling Z left on his victims.
The #MetaHumanThesis. Sounds like bracing reading.
False God. #Superman
#JesseEisenberg is uber-annoying as #LuxLuthor. This isn’t a character, it’s a caricature.
“The red capes are coming.” It used to be #Russians. Oh well, they’re red too.
“Bruce Wayne can’t break into Lex Luthor’s house.” Why not? He’s an expert detective.
#LexLuthor introduces #BruceWayne to #ClarkKent even though they’ve already met. #Narcissist
About an hour into the movie and there hasn’t been a single action scene. I’m...getting...sleee
How many times does #BruceWayne wake up from a nightmare in this movie?
That rocket launcher is bigger than the guy holding it.
“Do you bleed?” What’s with the heavy effects on #Batman‘s voice? Gimmicky.
#Superman enters the courtroom. I’m having bad flashbacks to #
TheQuestForPeace.
“Criminals are like weeds.” And #Batman and #Superman are like #Roundup.
#LexLuthor throws #Polaroids at #Superman. #JesseEisenberg‘s characterization is better suited for #Joker.
“The world only makes sense if you force it to.” Hmm.
The new #Batplane is awesome.
“I’m a friend of your son’s.” Even though I tried killing him less than an hour ago. #Batman #Superman
#Doomsday looks like the #CaveTroll in #
TheLordOfTheRings. #Superman
“I thought she was with you.” Ha! #WonderWoman #Superman #Batman
“This is my world.” Actually, you’re from #Krypton, #KalEl. #Superman
Cool lasso action #WonderWoman.
Final analysis: an overstuffed, overlong movie w/ some good moments, but fails to live up to all the hype.
Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Affleck is surprisingly good in a film that underwhelms by trying to overachieve.

I had every intention of boycotting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice until a friend invited me to a screening and, out of respect for him and against my better judgment, I sat through the entire two and a half hours of this uneven, uninspired crossover superhero schlock-fest. Why did I want to boycott the movie? 1. Ben Affleck as Batman? When I first heard the announcement, my brain rejected the very notion as if it were mental ipecac. However, now that I’ve seen the film, Affleck is actually halfway decent as the Caped Crusader (certainly better than Kilmer and Clooney) and isn’t remotely the main problem with the film, which leads me to… 2. I had no interest in watching two heroes go at it mano a mano. Perhaps I’m experiencing mental fatigue over the Trump/Cruz and Clinton/Sanders Super PAC character assassinations, but my stance is that we should be fighting a common enemy (i.e., ISIS) rather than each other: the upcoming Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War, further underscores the significant ideological divide that exists in our nation. Despite the fact that the movie is based on a successful comic book series of the same name, my contention is that the underlying premise here doesn’t befit an action packed blockbuster. Turning up the heat on my argument is the fact that Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script has a chronic case of ADD when trying to decide which hero to focus on—and the addition of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) only exacerbates this issue. The motivation for why Batman and Superman (Henry Cavill) are at odds with each other in the first place is extremely weak, even opaque. Worse still, the heroes are back to being friends the moment the villain (Doomsday) shows up, which is egregiously contrived (the scene where Batman tells Superman’s mom that he and Superman are good friends, right after they just pounded the living daylights out of each other, is utterly laughable). Aside from my initial misgivings about this superhero slap down, other snafus arose while watching the film, most noticeably the lack of action. An hour into the movie I leaned over and asked my friend if we were ever going to see an action scene. The first half of the film, in particular, is painfully slow as the writers do double duty in establishing the characters and milieus of both franchises while also teeing up the events that lead to the inevitable clash between the titular heroes. The crosscutting between storylines becomes exhausting after a while and simply isn’t conducive to an action flick. My least favorite aspect of the film is the irresponsible and irreverent manner in which Batman is rendered. Despite the fact that this version of Batman—who actually kills people and brands his victims with a hot poker—hews fairly close to the comic book, it’s just not the way I prefer my Dark Knight. There’s a scene where a group of frightened women refuse to leave a jail cell because some evil is still lurking about the compound. The threatening presence turns out to be Batman. It’s okay, even preferred, for Batman to instill fear in his enemies, but it’s not okay for him to terrorize innocents. Likewise, and this is completely subjective, I have no issue with Zack Snyder tweaking Superman’s persona to his whim, but I take great umbrage with how the director turned Batman into an animalistic antagonist. Another askew characterization is Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor…his acting choices are, in a word, abysmal. Eisenberg’s rapid-fire speech may have worked like a charm in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010), but his freewheeling prattle in this movie is downright annoying. Eisenberg’s quirky speech and spasmodic movements are actually a better fit for the Joker, but after the late Heath Ledger’s spellbinding performance in The Dark Knight (2010), my guess is that the Clown Prince of Crime will be kept on the sidelines for the foreseeable future in Batman movies. Not all is lost since the occasional character moment or pulse pounding action scene makes for a diverting viewing experience, but Snyder’s efforts here are far from fantastic. Bottom line: the kitchen sink plot, shifting POV narrative, Bad Batman, Boring Superman and Laughable Lex story elements have all conspired to relegate this comic book mash-up to the ranks of mediocre superhero films. It’s uncertain whether or not this movie will spawn a franchise of its own, but what is certain is that I will boycott any sequel that features Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. And this time I mean it.

Risen (PG-13)

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Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Joseph Fiennes
February 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Risen
Rolling stones used in combat. Symbolic of the big one later in the story. #RollingStones
“Until then...” #RomanBrutality
“Order...order.” I got it the first time. #BreathMint
Unusual for a #Bible movie to begin with the crucifixion.
“Never killed a king before.” Not just a king. #KingOfKings
“It’s as if he wanted to be sacrificed.” Like a lamb to the slaughter. #NoGreaterLove
“A day without death.” Great dialog during the pool scene.
“We must find a body.” Let the investigation begin. #CSIJerusalem
“Wait ‘till you see combat.” Ha!
“Some say he has risen.”
The scene where #Clavius asks which of his men knows #MaryMagdalene is hilarious.
“This is what you missed.” #RomanNail #Crucifixion
“They’re everywhere!” #Bartholomew is a great character who provides some much needed #ComicRelief. #12Disciples
The sword slips through #Clavius’ fingers. Seeing #Yeshua is a disarming experience.
“No one dies today.” The pursuit by the #Roman soldiers is an exciting sequence.
#CliffCurtis is very good in his portrayal of #Jesus.
The healing of the leper gave me #Goosebumps.
The #Ascension is spectacular!
“I doubt we’ll ever hear from them again.” Wrong!
Final analysis: the #Resurrection story told from a unique POV. Benefits from solid acting and gorgeous locations.
Rating:
3 out of 4. An original yet reverent #Bible epic with one of the finest #Redemption stories ever told.

Some years ago, back when I had aspirations of plying my acting skills (such as they are) into a career, I had the lead part in an Easter cantata entitled Bow the Knee.  The story focuses on a Roman centurion who has a crisis of conscience regarding the teacher named Jesus.  The play presented a unique story told from the POV of an original character and echoed similar conceits in films like Ben Hur (1959) and Barabbas (1961).  Like in Bow the Knee, Risen narrates the Passion of Christ through the eyes of a Roman soldier, but the twist here is that most of the story takes place after the crucifixion (which occurs early in the film).  The action kicks into high gear when Jesus’ tomb is found empty and Roman Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is put in charge of the investigation to find the body.  This procedural element keeps the story rolling along until Clavius has a life changing encounter with the subject of his pursuit midway through the movie.  Clavius falls in with the disciples and, by proxy, takes us on a spiritual journey which is punctuated by several key events from Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry. The 80/20 rule applies to this movie, with roughly 20% of the tale actually based on scripture and 80% extrapolated from the inspired text and presented for dramatic effect.  The end result here is seeker sensitive and palatable for those with an open mind, but will probably frustrate those fundamentalist theologians who maintain that a Biblical epic must be chapter and verse (and has there ever been such a film since none of us where there 2,000 years ago to determine the story’s authenticity?).  One of the most exciting elements in the story is how it weaves in and out of the official New Testament narrative, which provides freshness for those familiar with the actual events from the Bible. Some of those vignettes, extracted directly from the holy book, are extremely well executed, such as: the crucifixion, the fish bounty, the healing of the leper and the ascension. Other sequences, like when Roman soldiers pursue the disciples through tussocks of grass and winding canyons, are nowhere to be found in the Bible, but are visually exciting and help maintain audience interest throughout the story.  Aside from its pioneering plot, the acting is also a boon to the film.  Fiennes is superb in the lead role and plays his character’s gradual shift in loyalties to perfection.  Peter Firth is exceptional as Pontius Pilate, portraying the Roman official as a flesh and blood character rather than an egomaniacal caricature.  Tom Felton is effective as ambitious Roman soldier Lucius and Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) delivers an understated, yet deeply affecting, performance as Jesus.  In addition to the movie’s fine production elements, the locations have greatly contributed to the visual veracity of the film.  Shot in Spain and Malta, these exteriors have helped the story come to life by accurately depicting the Holy Land during the First Century.  In the end, this is a compelling story of personal redemption that just happens to be based on the Bible, and as such, should have appeal far beyond the religious set. 

The Revenant (R)

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Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
January 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Revenant
“Keep breathing.” Beats the alternative.
Never seen a river flow through trees like this.
Phantom arrows and friendly fire...they don’t stand a chance.
“Get off the boat.” #Unwise
“I ain’t got no life.” #PeltLife
Two bear cubs. Means momma is nearby. #GetOutOfThere
That #BearAttack is one ferocious sequence.
Leo might be wounded, but at least he has a #BearBlanket.
“Save your boy with a blink.” Intense scene.
Self-cauterizing a neck wound. #Ouch
God is a squirrel. Now I’ve heard it all.
Leo eats that fish #Gollum style.
Glass goes where the buffalo roam and the skies are cloudy all day.
“Your body is rotten.” Thanks for the compliment.
Silly Leo. Horses don’t fly.
Glass does the old #Tauntaun trick with his dead horse. It doesn’t smell good, but it’ll keep him warm.
“I need a horse and a gun.” Yeah! #RunningOnRevenge
Beautiful shot of the #Avalanche.
Final analysis: a cinematic masterpiece with a wholly immersive sense of place.
#AlejandroGInarritu has done for mountain forests what #DavidLean did for deserts in #LawrenceOfArabia.
Rating:
4 out of 4. A classic tale of revenge with superb acting by #DiCaprio and jaw dropping cinematography.

Ordinarily, a movie with liabilities like a dearth of dialogue, cursory character development and a standard cause-and-effect narrative wouldn’t be considered for Oscar’s top prize.  But The Revenant isn’t an ordinary film.  A good portion of the film’s success derives from its acting, particularly from Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, who play diametrically opposed forces in a revenge yarn set during the frontier period.  While Hardy is sufficiently loathsome as the movie’s treacherous antagonist, DiCaprio steals the show with a finely nuanced and physical demanding performance as Hugh Glass, a fur trapper with a half-breed son from his deceased Pawnee wife. Considering the high degree of difficulty inherent in this role and the fact that he’s long overdue for a win (5 previous nods), DiCaprio appears to be a shoo-in to snag the Best Actor Oscar, which would be justly deserved. Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter also turn in noteworthy supporting performances and the grizzly bear, played by Glenn Ennis in a blue suit, gets props (two paws up) for a solid assist. Another key ingredient in the movie’s winning formula is Alejandro G. Inarritu’s peerless direction; the film’s tone and visual style are directly attributable to Inarritu’s exceptional skills as a film craftsman. Inarritu has evoked incredibly visceral performances from his actors and has done so with minimal takes in arduous outdoor conditions. Having already won Best Director and Best Picture last year for Birdman, Inarritu seems poised to carry away another armful of statuettes at this year’s Oscars.  Acting and directing aside, the production element that has elevated this film above the extant exemplars of woodland Westerns is the utterly mesmerizing lensing by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  The movie’s dizzying array of POV shots, long takes and elaborate tracking shots have combined to form a type of visual poetry. The variety, complexity and audacity of these filming techniques, which effectively transport the viewer right into the middle of the action a la a FPS video game, is nearly unrivaled in cinema history (the only films that even come close are Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth trilogies, but those movies employed far more CGI).  Whereas a director envisions a shot and the cinematographer frames it, the locations create the look and mood of a film. As such, the reason this film will go down as a masterwork of visual expression is its locations and the exquisite manner in which they were captured—the avalanche scene, filmed in a real-time one take, is a jaw-dropping achievement. Since the vast majority of this movie was shot on location (almost exclusively in the Canadian Rockies), the exteriors play a crucial role in creating the illusion of reality that moors the viewer to the milieu in palpable ways, wholly immersing them in this savage chapter in American history.  The movie’s location scouts did a phenomenal job of discovering picturesque vantages and pinpointing the perfect setting for each camera setup, so kudos to them for their pioneering (sorry, couldn’t resist) work on this film.  If you can get past its occasional brutal passage, this movie is a singular experience that far transcends the highest aspirations of the quotidian film in its genre.  Which is to say, The Revenant is a cinematic marvel.  Go see it or I’ll sick the bear on you.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley
December 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Star Wars - The Force Awakens 1
Fortunately it’s the former.

There is no “balance in the Force” without the #Jedi. Great to see #MaxVonSydow.
Without the Jedi, the scales have tipped to the Dark Side. Looks like the galaxy needs a new hope. Von Sydow’s inclusion in the cast continues Star Wars’ long tradition of tapping classic Hollywood actors to play key parts: Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in the original trilogy, Christopher Lee in the prequels.

The trooper with three blood marks has trouble following orders. I can feel the conflict in him.
These markings remind me of the various symbols and designs on clone trooper helmets in The Clone Wars TV series and the muddy handprint on the faces of Saruman’s orcs in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Bread in seconds. #Rey can really hydrate a loaf.
Reference the instant pizzas in Back to the Future Part II (1989).

“The droid’s not for sale.” I’ve heard that before somewhere.
A reverse of Obi Wan’s statement in A New Hope (1977).

The #TIE crash lands on #Jakku. Don’t worry, the scrap will be used to help feed someone.
There’s a later scene where scavengers run straight toward a TIE fighter right before it crashes into the sand. When your livelihood is based on bartering machine parts, you get it while it’s hot, I suppose.

“I am with the Resistance.” Ha!
A funny scene that reveals Finn’s ability to improvise in order to survive.

“The garbage will do.” Hey, she’s still a fast hunk of junk.
Another knowing nod to Hope and Luke’s line, “What a piece of junk!”

“Anything else?” #KyloRen needs some anger management.
At least he doesn’t kill his officers like Vader.

#BB8’s thumbs up is uproariously funny.
The droid reveals its true purpose as a mobile cigarette lighter.

“Yes I do. Every time.” Han has always been a #SmoothTalker.
Han might make a mess in a cantina or step on a gangster’s tail, but he can always talk himself out of trouble.

“Move ball.” #HanSolo has never been a fan of droids. #BB8

Remember “Shut him up or shut him down” from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)?

“It’s all true.” #HanSolo is now a believer in the #Force.
He’s come a long way from his “simple tricks and nonsense” days.

“Women always find out the truth.” The wisest thing #HanSolo ever said.
And judging by his frosty relationship with Leah, it looks like he learned this truism the hard way.

#Rey heeds the #SabersCall.
This is her “cave” scene (a la Luke in Empire).

It’s hard to conceive of a weapon on a more epic scale than the #PlanetKiller. Jaw dropping.

#HanSolo using #Chewbacca’s crossbow is a hoot.
Nitpick alert: You mean to tell me that in all of their adventures together, Han never tried out Chewie’s crossbow?

“Princesses.” Ha!
When a prissy droid thinks you’re high maintenance, you’ve got some issues.

#KyloRen initiates a #MindMeld on #Rey. #SciFiMashUp
Clearly Ren needs some tips from Spock on how to extract information from someone’s brain.

“And I’ll drop my weapon.” #JediMindTrick
A funny scene and a trivia question all wrapped into one…the actor inside the trooper suit is none other than James Bond himself, Daniel Craig.

“Sanitation?” LOL!
The string of one-liners in this movie is also reminiscent of the humor in Hope.

“Escape now, hug later.” Always good advice.
Consider this: if Rey and Finn hadn’t hugged, Han might’ve had a few more seconds to take the lightsaber out of Ren’s hand. That hug killed Han!

A passing of the baton, er, lightsaber between initiate and master.
Although if I were Luke I’d tell Rey to “point that thing someplace else.”


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The opening shot of the dark side of a #StarDestroyer is brilliantly visualized.
This shot sets the tone for the entire movie…it’s compositionally similar to many of the opening scenes in the earlier films, but is shot in a unique style with a completely different mood. It’s a symbolic change that’s emblematic of the movie’s many variations on the theme.

The frozen blaster beam is tight.
A really striking visual that also illustrates Ren’s formidable powers.

The “lived in” universe, i.e. crashed #StarDestroyers, #ATATs, etc, is startlingly realized.
These scenes have a strong sense of place and really capture the look and feel of Hope. There’s a lot of atmosphere and magic here.

“No droid could be that important.” Actually, this one is. #BB8
R2 was pretty important in his day too.

“The droid stole a freighter?” That’s one talented droid. #BB8
Well, I guess if an Ewok can ride a speeder bike…

“They’ll be pieces of us in three different systems.” Ha!
A classic Han line.

“Whatever you do, don’t stare.” Hard not to in that eclectic gin joint.
Isn’t that like trying to ignore the elephant in the room?

“I’m a Stormtrooper.” Where’s your armor? #MajorReveal
Finn takes Han’s advice and fesses up to Rey.

“I like this thing.” Who wouldn’t? #ChewiesCrossbow
It’s got quite a kick.

“That’s one animal pilot!” #PoeDameron
This line is precipitated by an incredible, writhing long take that showcases Dameron’s fancy flying.

New jacket. Same old Han. #HanSolo
It’s nice to know that some things never change.

#Rey escapes #Stormtroopers scurry.
In the Roman Empire, if a prisoner escaped under your watch your life would be forfeit.

“Is there a garbage chute? Trash compactor?” Han would know.
“What a wonderful smell you’ve discovered.”

“Come get it.” Yeah!
Although I wouldn’t be so cavalier in Finn’s place. Riling Ren isn’t a good idea…unless you’re a Jedi.

#R2D2 meet #BB8.
A mechanical meet cute where old meets new. A nice moment.

#Rey finds #LukeSkywalker. #MagicalMoment. #ChillBumps.
The scene reminds me of old martial arts movie where an initiate would have to scale a tall mountain in order to begin the training process with a Kung Fu master. A similar scene in Krull (1983) comes to mind. Also, Luke’s destiny seems to be the last hope for the Jedi order…he’s had that distinction twice now.

Final analysis: a bold new look for the franchise with a plot that mirrors #ANewHope.
And a large helping of Empire too.

Rating:
3 out of 4. Better than the prequels but still lacks the magic of the original trilogy.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…there were three good to amazing movies (Episodes 4-6) and three fair to awful films (Episodes 1-3) from creator, director, writer George Lucas. Now, after a fallow decade for the franchise, after Lucas passed the baton to Star Trek director J.J. Abrams and after Lucasfilm was sold to Disney, Episode VII, known as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has finally been released amid much anticipation and under a cloud of secrecy that could shroud Bespin.  To bottom line it for you, Awakens is worthy of all the hype.  While Abrams’ riff on Lucas’ space epic lacks the wide-eyed wonder and sheer exhilaration of the original trilogy, it’s a Kessel Run ahead of the prequel trilogy.  In addition to moving the series forward chronologically (thirty-two years to be precise), Abrams has also made the series more palatable for contemporary audiences, just like he did for the most recent Star Trek movies.  Updating the technology, like various space ships and droids (i.e., the sleek ball-like robot BB-8), was a no-brainer. However, an even more important step in modernizing the franchise was Abrams’ sage decision to showcase more diversity in the cast, something that was largely missing from the earlier six Star Wars films (and that Lucas was widely criticized for). The two new heroes are a woman (Rey) and a black man (Finn). (Side comment: I’m really surprised there hasn’t been a racial uproar over the obvious similarity between the latter’s race and name to Huckleberry Finn). London actress Daisy Ridley, in her big screen debut, plays salvage scavenger Rey.  Rey is a distant of echo of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) since her desert home world, Jakku, is a dead ringer for Luke’s Tatooine…with the notable exception being that her planet is littered with derelict Star Destroyers and AT-AT walkers, not Krayt dragon skeletons.  Lucas’ conception of a “lived in” universe is vividly realized in Abrams’ first foray into the Star Wars saga.  The scenes involving Rey inside and outside the junked Star Destroyer are truly jaw-dropping (especially in 3D).  All of the desert scenes (shot in Abu Dhabi), particularly the scene where Rey slides down the sandy slope, are rich in atmosphere and tap into the gritty, organic feel that made A New Hope (1977) so otherworldly and magical.  One of the desert scenes depicts the crash landing of a TIE fighter with two of our heroes aboard: Finn (John Boyega), former stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), ace pilot for the Resistance.  Isaac (Ex Machina) has a scene with big screen legend Max Von Sydow, who makes a short, yet powerful, cameo at the beginning of the film.  Just as in Hope, the villain is introduced within the first five minutes of the film.  Even though Darth Vader has been replaced by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in this film, there is a rather important connection between the two antagonists which is the basis for one of the movie’s many mysteries.  Of course, the two biggest enigmas in the movie are Luke’s location and Ren’s true identity—both characters are on opposite ends of the Force spectrum and, as destiny and Hollywood writing would demand, have had dealings with each other in the past.  Despite various side stories and numerous action sequences, the whereabouts of the former Jedi master is the movie’s central through line.  Normally a movie’s MacGuffin is an object or thing, but in this case it’s a person…Luke.  And just as Luke is scarce in the movie, he’s nowhere to be seen on the movie poster, which has generated a great deal of controversy and speculation.  Wild theories abound including one that has Luke inhabiting the dark outfit of the movie’s main villain, Ren.  As for Ren, Abrams made the wise choice to not make him too much like Vader.  Admittedly, the black outfit and wheezy mask are similar, but the comparisons between the two villains diverge from there.  Vader takes out his aggressions on his subordinates while Ren manages his anger by shredding computer terminals with his three bladed lightsaber.  Vader’s voice is deep and heavy on the reverb, while Ren’s vocalizations are thin and tinny, like a poor radio transmission.  The most significant difference is that Vader is a Sith and Ren isn’t—so avers Abrams.  As such, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Vader, the Master, could kick Ren’s Learner heinie.  One of Ren’s character snafus is that, barring severe allergies, he doesn’t really need a mask. Sure, it gives his character added mystique and explains some of his back story, but it’s an utterly superfluous plot element. The scene where Ren removes his mask isn’t even half as momentous as when Vader does the same in the original trilogy. Three mo-cap characters that are worthy of mention are: Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Abrams has created photo-real CG creatures without making them too cutesy like Lucas’ alien creations in the prequels…thank the Maker.  Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most important characters in the film—the entire cast of the first trilogy: Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Skywalker (Hamill), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker).  It was uber-clever of Abrams to bridge the generations by integrating the original cast into this film. Ford, in particular, seemed to be having a ball this time around and turns in some of his finest acting in years.  Han’s opening line, “Chewie, we’re home” is cheer-worthy and makes for a memorable appearance for the smuggler and his rangy sidekick. In fact, each of the characters, including the droids, is given a dramatic entrance in the film (however, the reason why C-3PO has a red left arm is never explained).  It would’ve been standard, lazy Hollywood storytelling to just have the original characters show up, deliver a few lines and serve as nostalgia fodder for adult audience members.  Fortunately, Abrams, along with fellow scriptwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, wove these classic characters into the tapestry of the film in intelligent and delightful ways and gave each of them a significant role to play in the story.  Despite their heavy action and occasional frightening images, the Star Wars films have always been family friendly (and, fittingly, have focused on a family of characters), and Awakens certainly continues that tradition, as would be expected with Disney serving as owner and distributor of the film.  However, that doesn’t mean this movie is tame…nothing could be further from the truth as the film has plenty of pulse-pounding action. The film also boasts a degree of creative vision that’s nearly unparalleled in cinema history.  Even story elements that are completely unfounded scientifically, like the splintering death ray emanating from the Planet Killer, are mind-blowing in their scope, power and execution.  Abrams’ greatest contribution to the film was his Force-like ability to locate and populate the unexplored spaces within the extant Star Wars panoply. It’s almost as if Abrams and his writers listed dozens of things never attempted in the franchise and then selected a handful of them to build a plot around. The opening minutes are proof positive of this supposition since we’ve never seen the dark side (symbolic, right?) of a Star Destroyer before, nor a major ground assault at night. Most significantly, there isn’t a single space battle in the entire movie…all of the ship confrontations are staged as aerial assaults on a planet’s surface. The movie also marks the first time that enemy forces have conducted a tactical retreat…something that never would’ve happened on Vader’s watch. It’s possible to analyze this movie until the Banthas come home, but suffice it to say, this film has remained faithful to Lucas’ vision while venturing out into some bold new territory with some incredible new characters. Sure there are plot holes, inconsistencies and nitpicks here, as there are in any movie, but Awakens is a very serious attempt at doing justice to Lucas’ brainchild. Most of the early criticism of the film has centered on the story, which is ostensibly a patchwork reworking of the themes, scenes and lines from the original trilogy, particularly Hope and Empire. But the way I see it, if you’re going to borrow, why not borrow from the best? Whether you appreciate this kind of rehashed, retro-cool plot or not, I’m sure you’ll agree that this film has far, far surpassed the mediocre efforts of Episodes I-III—and how ironic that the characters in the movie are coming out of a Dark Ages (with no Jedi to ward off scum and villainy) just as we in the audience are coming out of one of our own (the prequels). Abrams’ film has resurrected the long dormant, long lackluster franchise with visual panache, an engaging story and some truly unforgettable moments. It has also effectively introduced the series to a whole new generation of fans. Once again, the Force is strong in the Star Wars universe.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay 2

“The bakery didn’t survive.” It was alive once? #LivingBakery
Sorry, couldn’t resist. Precision of language, folks.

Gale complains about #Katniss’ distracted kiss. I personally wouldn’t mind what she was thinking about.

The rebels crack the #Nut, much to #Katniss’ disapproval.
The beginning of the schism between Katniss and Gale.

“Turn your weapons to Snow.” #MeltingGun
A little play on words there. Reminds me of Duck Dodgers’ Disintegration Pistol which would…disintegrate. #LooneyTunes.

#PeetasPearl The ember remains.
Is this, in a symbolic sense, Peeta’s pearl of great price? #Bible

“She’s mythic.” #Katniss
Shouldn’t that be mythical?

“History doesn’t stop to celebrate.” Does it stop to mourn?
We do every year on September 11th and December 7th.

#StarSquad Say cheese!
There’s a whole section of the book where Katniss has to do extensive training in order to join the team. Sadly, none of those scenes appear in the movie.

Beware of #Pods. #
InvasionOfTheBodySnatchers
In that 50s sci-fi movie they were called pod plants, but close enough.

#Peeta the #CapitolMutt.
Snow does have him trained pretty well.

Peeta is a baker. So was the #ApostlePaul. #PeetaAndPaul
Before you brand me as a heretic, know that this is a witticism, courtesy of Bob Phillips. Paul was actually a tentmaker, but the joke maintains that he was a baker because he went to Philippi (Fill A Pie). #PewHumor.

#InkFlood Yick!
It’s later established that this is oil, which leads to the next tweet. I’m sure the oil was all CGI, but in the olden days the oil would be composed of printer’s ink and Metamucil or some other thickener. Reference Star Trek: The Next Generations’ “Skin of Evil.”

Apparently the Capitol has plenty of oil to waste.
I guess it’s Holo-Oil, created by the Gamemakers, but still.

“A face plucked from the masses.” #Katniss
Interesting word choice since Snow frequently plucks roses from his garden.

Coin cuts in on Snow. How wud!
No, they don’t dance together in the movie. That would be creepy.

Rest in a sewer? Don’t know that I could.
Unless I had nose plugs.

There’s a sound in the sewer tunnel. Must be #Gollum creeping about.
More appropriately, “sneaking.”

These #SewerZombies are fast.
Kind of like the speedy zombies in I Am Legend (2007) or World War Z (2013).

#Tigress is on loan to #Panem from the #
ThunderCats.
Correction: Tigress is from Kung Fu Panda, Tygra is from the Thundercats.

“They chose you.” Then they chose death.
The price of freedom.

Snow’s “our way of life” speech is frighteningly relevant to current events.
But in reverse with ISIS being cast in the role of the rebels. Although with all of the corruption in the U.S. government…

#ParachuteBombs Once a symbol of hope, now an instrument of death.
Color me cynical, but I wouldn’t be anywhere near one of those parachutes when it landed.

How many times does #Katniss end up in a hospital in this movie? #CharredMockingjay
I think I counted three visits to the hospital. This story device, which is presumably designed to produce pathos in the viewer, gets worn out from overuse.

“These things happen in war.” Especially when Snow’s finger is on the button.

A symbolic Hunger Games? Have we learned nothing?
Coin signs her own death warrant at this point.

 Snow’s execution...you can hear a Coin drop.

“GET OUT!!!” Poor cat’s gonna have #PTSD.
Although, I’ve never seen a cat just sit there when objects are hurled at it.

“No one ever wins the games.” Not even the #Victors.
Especially not the winners, because they have to live with the guilt from all the people they’ve had to kill in order to survive.

“Much worse games to play.” #Katniss has different arrows in her quiver now.
This world stands in stark contrast to the bombed out dystopia featured throughout the series. These scenes seem to suggest that there’s hope for humanity. #HappyEnding.

Final analysis: an adequate, if not spectacular, series capper.

The first two were really good, the last two were mediocre. Should’ve been a trilogy.
It’s a shame that The Hunger Games ended up as an average movie series since it had such potential to be great.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. The perfunctory plot and lack of action make this an unsatisfactory conclusion.

The trend where the final book of a series is turned into two movies needs to take one of Katniss’ arrows straight through the heart.  Instigated by the Twilight and Harry Potter (and later by The Hobbit, which is three movies for one book) franchises, the end result in each case has been a weak and watered down conclusion.  Obviously the rationale for milking more movies out of a book series is financially motivated, but any art extracted from the source material is suffering at the hand of avarice in these four movie trilogies.  Mockingjay 1 was a middling effort that merely set the table for this series finale.  Maybe it’s due to that weak lead-in, but this final Hunger Games film is a drab, lackluster affair, with a dearth of action sequences, insipid character scenes and a ho-hum resolution.  It’s a shame that Jennifer Lawrence’s considerable talents were wasted on this uninspired rendering of Suzanne Collins’ novel.  Other A-listers were also underserved here: Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci have maybe a half dozen scenes between them. Also, Donald Sutherland (President Snow) and Julianne Moore (President Coin), as post-apocalyptic power brokers on opposing sides of a coup, do their utmost to animate their cardboard characters, but unfortunately even fine acting can’t elevate the movie’s mediocre writing. It’s truly sad that this underachieving effort will go down as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film credit.  With all the quality work he did before his untimely passing in early 2014, it’s a shame that this film will be his last impression on future audiences.  Additionally, how ironic is it that Hoffman’s acting career, which was largely devoted to independent and arthouse pictures, should culminate with a commercial blockbuster and that today’s youth will probably only remember him as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games films? As for the story, everything feels rushed, expedient and contrived in Peter Craig and Danny Strong’s screenplay.  When the Nut is blasted by the rebels, we see the explosions over Katniss’ shoulder off in the distance while she’s in the middle of an important conversation.  Here was an opportunity to create a really amazing action scene but it’s thrown away as a non-event, and worse still, upstaged by chatting characters. It’s bitterly ironic that even though there are plenty of character moments in the film, there’s very little characterization…an important distinction. We lost some good character interactions during the training sequences, which failed to appear in the movie, presumably because they would’ve taken up too much screen time. The simmering love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (which is an obvious echo of the Bella, Edward and Jacob triad from the Twilight series) comes to a full boil in this movie, but oddly, Katniss’ conflicted choice is made academic by the poor decision of one of her suitors.  Her selection is made in an instant, which cheapens the moment and is a severe letdown after the buildup over the last three movies.  Like the previous films, the final chapter of The Hunger Games flirts with a message, but doesn’t really deliver on the promise of a well considered, dystopian cautionary tale.  The perfunctory plot (which hews too closely to Collins’ novel) takes us on an expected journey to a predictable final confrontation and a standard, even passé, resolution.  The movie’s Jane Austen style ending will likely leave some spectators bewildered and others angered. This bucolic dénouement was a gutsy choice and even though I’m not averse to it personally, I can see where others might take issue with it or outright mock it.  So, is this film worthwhile?  Depends on how you like your entertainment.  For me, the movie left me hungry for a more substantial and meaningful final act to an otherwise entertaining series. 

Spectre (PG-13)

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Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Spectre
After his pre-release statement: “I’d rather slash my wrists” than play Bond again, I’m guessing yes.

The dead are alive.
They’re called zombies.

Mexico City. Day of the Dead. I’m having flashbacks to #
LiveAndLetDie.
Different country, but the skeletons and other macabre images here are similar to the Mardi Gras themes/scenes in Roger Moore’s first Bond film.

A toast to death.
There’s a lot of the latter in this movie.

That’s one powerful sniper rifle.
The explosion here is kinda’ like in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) when Han Solo blew up the Imperial probe droid with his blaster…times a million.

Weird octopus opening.

#JamesBond meets #Moriarty.
Actor Andrew Scott plays Holmes’ arch nemesis, James Moriarty, in BBC’s Sherlock.

#SmartBlood Microchips are so last decade.
No more anonymity for anyone. Nor any privacy. Be very afraid.

“What a lovely view.” #MonicaBellucci is as fetching as ever.
It’s really surprising that Bellucci hasn’t been in any Bond films up until now since she seems perfectly suited to portray a Bond Girl.

Nasty eye poke.
Every Bond thug has his own shtick. Oddjob had his steel-brimmed bowler hat. Jaws had his metallic teeth. Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) has his metal plated thumbnails.

Ammunition not loaded. Q is getting lax.
This whole sequence reminded me of the opener in Star Trek: Generations. “It won’t be installed until Tuesday.”

“You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” Thanks for the pep talk, Crusty. #PaleKing
The Pale King certainly lives up to his name. Although Wrinkle King would be a more fitting title.

“Cut out the middle man.” Hilarious!
My vote for funniest line in the movie. Bond needs a drink in his hand, not a veggie juice.

To liars and killers.
The movie is chockfull of both.

Bond vs Bautista. Amazing fight sequence.
Kind of reminded me of Batman fighting Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

Bond arrives at the #DesertStadium.
That’s exactly what it looks like. The granite fortress also reminds me of the gigantic crater where they hid Airwolf.

“Out of horror, beauty.” Sicko!
“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Q is for Quartermaster.
Never knew that’s what Q stood for. Seems kind of obvious in retrospect.

C is for Careless.
Don’t play chess with Ralph Fiennes…you’ll loose. Oh, and M isn’t for Moron, you punk.

“I’ve got something better to do.” Classic Bond #DoubleEntendre.
And a great way to end the movie, while leaving Blofeld alive and well to haunt Bond in future movies.

Final analysis: some entertaining moments, but an unwieldy actioner that squanders its superb cast.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Good Bond, but not great Bond. James Bond will return, but who will play him?

There’s an old expression: don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Pragmatic and didactic, this saying definitely applies to Daniel Craig’s pre-release statement that he’d rather have his wrists slashed than play Bond again. While it’s unclear what prompted such a vitriolic retort, one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that Bond has been pretty good to Craig over the years. In fact, his career might still be stuck in second gear with obscure indie films like Layer Cake (2004) or commercial flops like The Golden Compass (2007) were it not for Bond. Aside from Craig’s comment, which clearly hints at a “disturbance in the Force” behind the scenes, this film’s resolution also makes his continued participation in the series dubious a best. Although Craig’s commitment to his craft cannot be questioned, it’s quite obvious that something is missing from his portrayal of Bond this time around. Something is missing from the story too…a big something. Despite a handful of rousing action scenes and some fine location work, the sum of the parts here falls far short of Skyfall (2012) (although it’s still a fair sight better than 2008’s Quantum of Solace, which, ironically, also features an industrial complex out in the middle of a desert that Bond blows up). What prevents this movie from being top shelf Bond is its scattershot story which features dangling plot threads (Monica Bellucci needed to factor into the story line somehow), a great deal of globetrotting without really accomplishing anything, a murky cautionary tale about the invasive nature of technology and decent, but certainly not earth-shattering, action sequences. Lead writer on Spectre, John Logan, has had a checkered past (Gladiator, 2000 and Star Trek: Nemesis, 2002) as a Hollywood scribe, and his efforts on this film are, likewise, a mixed bag. The movie certainly flirts with relevance in the way it addresses the increasing presence of Big Brother in our lives. The delivery system for this Patriot Act on speed—smart blood—has far-reaching implications for the future of our world, not to mention being a clever, cutting-edge concept. The shadowy, extra-governmental agency story element has been done many times before (remember the Cancer Man’s cabal in The X-Files?), especially in spy films, so these “gathering of evils” scenes, though well staged and filmed, are painfully passé. The drill scene is utterly absurd and stretches credulity to near sci-fi limits. The action sequences are vintage Bond, which is to say visually exciting but completely unrealistic, e.g., the scene where the roof collapses and Bond ends up falling right onto a couch. Yeah right! The subplot centering on the 00 program becoming defunct is eerily similar to the disbanding of the IMF in this year’s Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (and how similar is Spectre and the Syndicate in operation and objective?). The ultimate detractor to the story is its ADHD narrative, which moves its characters from place to place but doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s no MacGuffin here (at least not in the traditional sense), no clear-cut goal and no real sense of accomplishment at the end since we all know that the villain will be back in future films. Additionally, it’s obvious to anyone in the audience that Bond’s determination to put his career as a spy behind him can’t possibly last. Ironically, even though Spectre has moved the franchise forward, it’s actually set it back. Sad. So will Craig be back as Bond? Doubtful, but that might be a blessing in disguise if the actor isn’t fully invested in the role…that would be a disservice to the franchise and the fans. If Craig does decide to move on, let’s just hope it doesn’t take the producers four years to find a replacement like the last time. After all, there is such a thing as Bond withdrawals.

Everest (PG-13)

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur
Starring: Jason Clarke
September 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Everest
If only psychologically. Actually, most SoCal theaters are like ice boxes year-round, so watching a flick is a great way to beat the heat.

20 teams. “A scrum on the ropes.”
Unfortunately, the more people there are on the mountain, the greater the chance of casualties. The grim reality of statistical probability.

“Mailman on Everest.” Long way to deliver a letter.
The Mailman is played by indie actor, John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, 2010 and The Sessions, 2012).

Climber’s memorial. Last chance to turn back.
A graveyard for climbers whose lives were claimed by the mountain.

“The last word always belongs to the mountain.” Know who you’re competing against.
A good reminder to always pay the proper amount of respect to the mountain.

“One pound down here is like ten pounds up there.” #LightAndFast
This is a reference to shedding weight from a backpack, not personal weight. Although, that would factor in as well, one would think.

“Head down, one step at a time.” The only way to attack the mountain.
What a grueling task it would be to climb Everest. It’s not just how cold the air is, but also how thin it is.

“The mountain makes its own weather.” And it can change in an instant.
As the characters in the movie find out…the hard way.

Beautiful night view of the mountain.
There’s nothing like being on top of the world, breathing crisp, clean air and watching the moonlight glistening off of snow peaks. A spiritual experience.

No fixed ropes. You slip you die.
That’s okay. I’ll sit this one out.

Hopefully the call from home gives Rob the motivation he needs to get moving.
Wishful thinking on my part. In my defense, I was unfamiliar with this story before watching the film.

Final analysis: a heart-stopping, man vs. nature tale where respect for the mountain is paramount for survival.
And respect for fickle weather.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. What the film gains in production it loses in predictability. A true story worth watching.

This type of extreme sports movie has been done many times throughout cinema history. Mountain climbing films like K2 (1991) and Vertical Limit (2000) are presented more as thrillers than man versus nature cautionary tales. Whereas many of those mountain movies are fictional, Everest is based on the horrific events that occurred on the big mountain in 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) lead a team to the top of Everest, but on the descent, conditions rapidly worsened and many climbers either slipped off the edge of a cliff or became one with the mountain…permanently. Survival thrillers, along with disaster films and murder mysteries, usually employ a thinning of the herd narrative approach, and such is the case here.  As macabre as it sounds, it almost becomes a spectator sport to guess who will live and who will die when things go south, as they always do in this brand of film.  This Darwinian winnowing of characters is much harder to guess in fictional stories, but in true events, like the one featured in this film, anyone familiar with the historical account will know who survives and who doesn’t.  However, the writing here is as taut as a climbing line and should hold the attention of everyone in the audience with its skillful recitation of the harrowing events that befell this particular group of adventurers nearly twenty years ago. Bringing the characters to life is an eclectic cast of fine actors including: Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, John Hawkes, Emily Watson, Robin Wright and Sam Worthington.  If there’s a downside to having such a large cast it’s that screen time is at a premium, especially since personal stories are constantly upstaged by action on the mountain.  Some of the individual episodes are tragic, like when Hawkes’ mailman, Doug Hansen, sends himself express to the bottom of the mountain, while others are heroic, like the subplot focusing on Brolin’s ironically named character, Beck Weathers, who, despite losing his nose, miraculously survives two gelid nights up on the slope.  Although the death scenes aren’t overly graphic, some of them might be frightening for younger kids.  However, despite a handful of death scenes, there really isn’t anything else that’s objectionable in the film.  Indeed, one of the producers of the movie is Walden Media, which is the family friendly company that brought us the Narnia trilogy.  Aside from the decorated cast, the biggest draw here is the gorgeous scenery filmed on location in Nepal and Italy.  As the de facto star of the movie, the mountain scenes had to be spectacular, and they are, thanks in large part to director Baltasar Kormakur and cinematographer Salvatore Totino. All things considered, this movie is exactly what you’d expect from a tragic true tale set on the frozen tundra.  The movie is a humbling reminder of the awesome power of nature.  Moral of the story: don’t play games with Mother Nature.  You’ll lose.

The Martian (PG-13)

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Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon
October 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Martian
Not quite. Though not nearly as epic in scale or scope as Interstellar, The Martian is an enjoyable sci-fi yarn in its own right.

Communication is the hallmark of teamwork. Until you close the comm channel.
Can you imagine how much people on a long range space expedition would get on each others’ nerves?

Wicked windstorm. Beware of loose satellite dishes.
And crews that leave their own behind.

“Mark Watney is dead.” The end.
Good thing he isn’t dead or this would be a really short movie.

The press conference puts #JeffDaniels’ news anchor skills from #HBO’s #
TheNewsroom to good use.
If you close your eyes, you can almost picture him at a news anchor’s desk. Daniels excels in this kind of role.

Warning: the #SelfSurgery scene is rough to watch.
Scott featured a self-abortion procedure in his Alien prequel Prometheus. Seems to be a pattern with the director.

“I’m not going to die here.” That’s the spirit.
Watney’s positivity, along with his ingenuity, is really what saves his life.

“Luckily...I’m a botanist.” Ha!
A very funny scene since we really don’t know what Watney’s position in the crew is up to this point.

Nice #Noseplugs, Watney.

The first sign of green on #Mars.
This scene reminds me of the beginning of WALL-E when the robot gives the green sprig to EVE as a present.

50 million miles from Earth. #MajorHomesickness
I couldn’t imagine the suffocating isolation of being on an interstellar voyage like this.

Organic, homegrown potatoes on #Mars. They make far tastier #FrenchFries than #MacDonalds.
At least you’d know they were real potatoes, not frozen slices of processed starch like at Mickey Ds.

“The whole world is rooting for you.” What a singular honor.
Better not accidentally kill yourself. No pressure or anything.

“I colonized Mars.” Hilarious.
Watney’s cogitations are always so well formulated. The mark of a great scientist.

Mark’s life is saved by the “handyman’s secret weapon.” #DuctTape #
TheRedGreenShow
This Canadian comedy show will leave you in stitches. Back to Mars: it’s amazing how duct tape can seal a breach in a cracked helmet, effectively shutting out the Martian atmosphere. And great preparedness on Watney’s part to have tape on his person at all times. He must’ve been a Boy Scout.

#ProjectElrond. Clever inside reference with #SeanBean in the room. #Boromir #
LOTR
Bean played Boromir, who was at the Council of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

“Mark Watney, Space Pirate.” Love his line of reasoning. #SpacePirate
Though done tongue-in-cheek, the logical assemblage of facts with humorous applications makes this a delightful scene. It’s a nice character moment that further cements our affinity for the character.

“Everywhere I go I’m first.” What a euphoric feeling that would be.
It’s a sensation familiar only to true pioneers.

That tarp over the nose of the rocket is giving me major anxiety.
I’d want a lot more than a sheet of plastic between me and space.

“You have terrible taste in music.” Much needed #ComicRelief.
Disco is to music what film noir is to movies. Both had a clearly defined beginning and end. As such, they are styles or movements, not genres.

Final analysis: an inspiring story of ingenuity and tenacity that’s at least as heart stopping as #
Apollo13.
And is arguably more intense (as a whole) than last year’s Interstellar.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4. Damon turns in a stellar performance and Scott’s direction is truly out of this world.

Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian is the latest foray into deep space by director Ridley Scott (Alien, 1979 and Prometheus, 2012). Although the star of the show is Matt Damon, he’s supported by a dazzling array of fine actors, including: Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis. Damon plays Mark Watney, member of a manned mission to Mars. During a violent sand storm, gale force winds tear loose a satellite dish that slams into Watney and sends him spiraling away into the blustery Martian night. The team leader (Chastain) makes the difficult decision to leave Watney and the sand blasted surface of Mars behind for the regulated environs of the orbiting space vessel. Once the team is safely aboard, the ship begins its long journey back to Earth. At a press conference, Watney is pronounced dead by a NASA executive (Daniels). The end. Not quite. As you’ve guessed, Watney is still alive. Thus begins the rest of the movie, which centers on Watney’s arduous struggle to stay alive on the Red Planet and the problematic rescue mission mounted by NASA. The story element that makes this movie so incredibly enjoyable is its educational component: watching Watney use real science (most of which went right over my head) to sustain his life, especially during the sequence where he creates a makeshift greenhouse inside the landing pod, is engrossing and exhilarating. If these scenes have a downside, however, it’s that I suffered an anxiety attack when I mentally put myself in Watney’s place and realized I wouldn’t last one day on Mars with my limited knowledge of science. Granted, Watney is a trained astronaut, but there’s no way I would know how to make all of the gizmos he improvises with duct tape and feces (not together fortunately, ew). This master course in science is definitely one of the more engaging aspects of the film, but there’s plenty more to recommend it. Like in 2010 (1984) and Space Cowboys (2000), an international effort is required in order to accomplish the mission, a plot point that should appeal to foreign audiences as well as promote global goodwill…which our world can certainly use right now. There can be no doubt that Damon’s Watney is the hero of the hour: he’s resourceful, humble and witty. While Watney is a far cry from Damon’s devious Dr. Mann in Interstellar (2014), he’s a distant echo of Damon’s titular character in Saving Private Ryan (1998): rescue teams are sent to retrieve his characters in both of those films as well as this one. Playing a lost sheep is becoming a career MO for Damon. As a bona fide sci-fi epic, Martian puts other Mars-themed movies (Mission to Mars and Red Planet, both released in 2000) to shame. Ridley Scott’s well honed craft is evident both in the film’s outer space and planetary scenes. His framing of the visually striking desert vistas on the surface of Mars (filmed on Earth, of course) are effectively counterpointed by the moody and claustrophobic environments inside the various vessels—mother ship, module and rover. Scott mastered this juxtapositional contrast between the expansiveness of space and the constricting confines of space vessels in his Alien movies. The mounting crises in this film brings to mind the similar mechanical failures and scientific quandaries that made Apollo 13 (1995) such a pulse-pounding, nail-biting masterpiece. This film matches that level of intensity but also offers a good amount of comic relief, especially during Watney’s mission logs. Whereas Prometheus and Interstellar offer a harder brand of sci-fi, Martian is more scientifically accurate and has more commercial appeal. In the end, this survival film is thrilling, inspiring and crowd-pleasing and has carved out its own little corner of the sci-fi universe.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (PG-13)

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Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Henry Cavill
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Man From UNCLE
Who better to play rival spies than Superman (Cavill) and the Lone Ranger (Hammer)?

“I just hope he doesn’t drive as fast as he moves,” Mr. Important Suit says.
In an ironic twist, Hammer proves to be faster than a speeding bullet.

“He’s trying to stop the car.” Ha!
A funny scene, especially when Cavill refuses to shoot Hammer because he’s amused by the audacity and tenacity of his foreign counterpart.

“Inside every Kraut is an American trying to come out.” #ColdWarHumor
Perhaps, but is every Kraut sour?

“America is teaming up with Russia.” And there’s our premise.
Writ large for those who can’t figure it out on their own.

“It doesn’t have to match.” These spies fight over everything, even women’s fashion.
Actually, it’s a bit frightening how much they know about women’s fashion. Does their job often require them to dress up in female disguises? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

“Good night little chop shop girl.” All danced out, apparently.
Or in a liquor coma.

“These...are...Russian...made.” Amusing scene.
It’s scenes like this that lighten the mood and help move the story along in the movie’s early goings.

The slap upside the head scene is hilarious.
And totally unrealistic. Even a Vulcan nerve pinch seems more feasible.

Who peels a grape?
Seems like a waste of time…and food. It also seems a tad masochistic, which leads us to…

Pain and fear...life’s two masters. If you’re a masochist.
I thought love conquered all? Guess I need to keep up with the times.

“For a special agent you aren’t having a special day, are you?” #HughGrant’s comedic timing is flawless.
Though he has a few more wrinkles these days, Grant is still an effective funny man.

The scene where the 4-wheeler glides over the water is amazing.
This action sequence is arguably the finest in the movie and is aided immensely by aerial shots that zoom in on moving objects, a la documentary filmmaking.

“How’s that for entertainment?” Fun nonlinear sequence.
However, even though it’s a well executed scene, it borrows heavily from Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies.

“You’re a terrible spy, cowboy.” Back at you, Ruskie.
Amazing that, all these years later, Cold War tropes and stereotypes still find their way into modern entertainment.

Final analysis: gorgeous locations, arresting action and solid acting overcome an opaque plot.
That last point is the movie’s main drawback. The first quarter of the film is a head-scratcher until enough of the plot pieces fall into place and the story starts to make sense…sort of.

Rating:
3 out of 4. The humor, action and brilliant film style put it over the top for this spy yarn.

Based on the 60s espionage TV series of the same name, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. focuses on the exploits of one American and one Russian spy who are forced to work together for the global good during the Cold War…no easy task. Obviously, this premise had more relevance back in the 60s than it does today, although, Cold War tensions, under one guise or another, still persist in the modern world. A small screen answer to the Bond films, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was heavy on intriguing spycraft and thrilling adventure, both of which, fortunately, have been carried over into the big screen adaptation. In the TV series, Robert Vaughn played Napoleon Solo and David McCallum played Illya Kuryakin; here it’s Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, respectively. The opening scene introduces the characters and sets up a rather amusing game of cat and mouse between the two superstar spies. The real fun begins when they’re forced to work together as partners—the clash of styles and cultures instigates many humorous and spirited exchanges between the two agents. The action scenes, though few and far between, are superbly storyboarded and realized. However, they don’t contain the typical jaw-dropping visuals that you’d expect to find in a big budget summer action film, with the exception of the aerial shots captured for the high-octane chase scene. Ritchie’s use of stylistic elements—i.e., quick freeze frame shots, prismatic lens flares, etc—is really what prevents the film from becoming yet another action movie clone. An editing/narrative technique employed here, which was also used to great effect in the director’s Sherlock Holmes films, involves using flashback sequences to explain the mysteries that were planted earlier in the story. Although it’s gimmicky and trite, this storytelling device works quite well here. If there’s a downside to the movie, it’s the slowly-paced, frequently confusing story. Even though Ritchie eventually answers all of the questions posed during the movie, trying to figure out where the story’s going is often an arduous, frustrating task. If you have the appropriate degree of patience and focus, there’s a good chance the film will actually make sense to you. Otherwise, you might find this film to be an exercise in consternation. Still, in this age of shallow storylines with gaping plot holes (Transformers, Pacific Rim, etc.), having too much story is a nice change of pace over having too little. As for the acting, Cavill and Hammer are perfectly cast and have amazing screen chemistry as feuding partners forced to find common ground while fighting a common enemy. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) is also extremely effective as the duplicitous damsel in distress and provides a tantalizing wild card element to the proceedings. All things considered, this is a decent film that’s entertaining, if not earth-shattering. An U.N.C.L.E. franchise seems feasible as long as emerging stars Cavill and Hammer remain interested in the films and as long as patrons keep showing up to see them. Coming fast on the heels of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and carrying the torch for Spectre, the next James Bond film set to release this fall, U.N.C.L.E. is another 60s spy property that proves this action sub-genre is alive and well.

Fantastic Four (PG-13)

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Directed by: Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller
August 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Fantastic Four
Flame out. Perhaps forever.

“I’ve already built it.” Sure kid.
We saw this exact same scenario—kid with an invention that actually works rejected by a narrow-minded adult—earlier this summer in Tomorrowland (and also in last year’s Big Hero 6 and 2006’s Meet the Robinsons). Hackneyed movie opener.

Reed needs a power converter. I think Luke picked up a spare at #ToscheStation.
You might have to put up with his whiney voice, but he’s a fair trader.

“You’re paying for the backboard.” No appreciation for science.
Is this Hoosiers (1986) or a superhero movie?

“There’s patterns in everything.” Like #KateMara’s shirt, for instance.
Why can’t Sue see the pattern of destruction that’s in the offing?

“Fix what my generation broke.” Tall order.
And extremely unfair. It’s like saying, “We blew it and now it’s up to you to save the world. No pressure.”

“Us us?” Great dialog.
“Yes, yes.” Because a team of scientists would make prime candidates for exploring a new world, right?

Cool #Lego mug.
Does it come apart? Might create a minor inconvenience if it contained hot coffee.

Where are the space suits for the chimps? #AnimalCruelty
I guess because the chimps didn’t actually step out onto the alien planet they didn’t necessarily need space suits. However, as a precaution against any kind of hull breach that would allow a foreign, virulent agent into the capsule, the simians technically should’ve been inside some sort of environment suit…with a sippy straw leading to a bladder full of puréed bananas. Also, if the chimps had gotten out they might have established a true Planet of the Apes.

Reed Richards can create a teleportation device, but doesn’t know how to do a #FistBump? #Lame
Just proof positive of how little thought was put into this script by writers Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg and Josh Trank.

“I don’t think we went anywhere.” Kinda like the plot.
Indeed, the entire movie is like a roller coaster that never leaves the platform…all hype and no thrills.

Victor falls into the green lava pit. He’s doomed.
Will we ever get away from these tacky villain names taken directly from the comic books? Today’s audience is savvy enough to know who the antagonist is without naming him Von Doom.

#PlanetZero Where all plots go to die.
Planet Zero…where zeros are turned into heroes. Planet Zero…where you get zero entertainment value for your two hour and twelve buck investment. This is too easy.

Sue’s adoptive dad calls her Susan, which she dislikes. #Nitpick
Earlier, we learn that Sue dislikes being called “Susan” by Victor. So why would her adoptive father call her a name she doesn’t want to be called?

Johnny accidentally throws a fireball at Sue. #FriendlyFire
And the military is thinking about using him as an asset?

The naming of the group scene is utterly insane.
Correction: Although the scene is quite insane, I meant to type “inane.”

Final analysis: a poorly produced and paced reboot that squanders its talent on mediocre fare.
By talent, of course, I mean the central four cast members, each of whom is primed to become a major Hollywood star.

Rating:
1 1/2 out of 4. The only thing fantastic about this film is the wealth of commentary it’s generated.

I see no reason to waste my time (or yours) on a full review for this film. Actually the word “film” is too fine an appellation for this superfluous series of bland, expositional scenes which are performed on drab sets and locations and adorned with substandard production elements. It’s no overstatement that a sixth grader could’ve written a better story than what we find in this pedestrian plot, which lays out something like this: they went, they came back, they went again to fix everything they messed up the first time and then they came back home. See Dick run. The first half of the picture focuses on the “they went” part, which drags on and on with uninteresting character beats and infuriatingly prosaic dialog. The four heroes finally get their superpowers about midway through the movie, at which point we’ve become so terminally bored that we really could care less what happens to them. The action sequences are poorly conceived and executed and are accompanied by lackluster visual effects, save for the impressive scene where the trees and cars are sucked up into the singularity a la Mega Maid’s cosmic vacuum in Spaceballs (1987). As for the “major” fight scene at the end of the flick…kids staging an imaginary battle in their backyard could’ve choreographed a more creative and energetic melee than the one featured here. This is especially true of the scene where Dr. Doom quickly and easily neutralizes the powers of each member of the Fantastic Four. They aren’t so fantastic after all it would seem…much like the movie itself. Bottom line: This ill-advised release makes the original, mediocre Fantastic Four movies look like The Avengers films by comparison. This un-Fantastic flick may have singlehandedly killed the series despite the presence of some truly talented young performers in the title roles. Unless some future reboot miraculously reanimates the comatose series, this franchise is doomed.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation
This review will self-destruct in five, four, three…

“I didn’t need help, I needed assistance.”
Of semantics and silliness.

“Open the door!”
If you’ve seen the trailer you know what’s coming…

“The other door.”

A turntable. How quaint.
Normally these mission dossiers are ultra high tech, so it’s nice to see something this retro as the delivery system for the message. And I absolutely loved the jazz history lesson.

“Saving the Western Hemisphere.” Ha!

“Today’s the day when the IMFs luck runs out.” Time to go rogue.
And by luck, Alec Baldwin’s character means funding….and government sanctioning. Minor speed bumps.

OMG! The way Hunt works his way up the pole is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
And the fact that Cruise did this stunt himself is uber-impressive.

“Welcome to the CIA.” No thanks.
Robert Culp’s character on The Greatest American Hero once referred to the CIA as “Creeps in Action.” Aptly put, especially in this film.

“You want drama, go to the opera?” Must I?
Although, this is certainly the liveliest opera I’ve ever seen (on the big screen). An amazing backstage brawl, debris raining down onto the set and a thwarted assassination attempt all combine to make this an unforgettable sequence. To say nothing of the obvious rifle as phallus imagery.

The bow tie’s coming off. Here we go!

Two assassins. Who to shoot?
C’mon, you know Ethan isn’t going to shoot the smokin’ hot babe.

“Change of plans. Throw her out.” Ha!
One of the funniest moments/lines in the film.

The anti-IMF. #TheSyndicate.
Bond has SPECTRE, Marvel has Hydra, etc. Same dif.

A digital safety deposit box. A clever concept as long as you don’t get hacked.
Or as long as there isn’t any data corruption, or a solar flare that knocks out the electricity, etc. In short, nothing is truly “safe.”

“That doesn’t sound impossible.” #ConserveOxygen
A throwaway line that riffs on the title. Good for a titter and a line for Twitter, but not much else.

Ethan jumps into a water singularity that looks like a giant woofer on a speaker.
Either that or a monochromatic version of the Looney Tunes opener.

“Stairs...stairs...stairs...”
The moment would’ve played far better if this was Pegg’s first film in the series. As things are, his standard shtick inspires courtesy chortles rather than uproarious guffaws.

One of the most pulse pounding motorcycle pursuits ever committed to film.
And I love that shirt Cruise is wearing. Where can I purchase one?

“There are no allies in statecraft.” No honor among thieves either.
This is one of my favorite lines in the film. It feels like it was lifted right out of a Le Carre novel.

“You sure can ride.” #ThatsWhatSheSaid
I debated over whether or not to Tweet this, due to its appropriateness, but it’s the only favorite I got for this movie so #GoodGamble.

“Come away with me.” I really like #Option3.
A woman like that wouldn’t have to ask me twice.

“That Syndicate.” There’s more than one?
I guess it is like Hydra. Cut off one head…

“Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.”
A nice twist on the phrase and a fitting one for this actioner.

“Meet the IMF.” Yeah!
A rousing scene that’s more than a little reminiscent of the superhero team shot in The Avengers.

Final analysis: a decent addition to the series that has solid action, but little heart.
I never once felt connected to anything in the story. The tame romance isn’t the least bit compelling, nor is the standard issue IMF under siege by a secret organization with nefarious motives subplot. There’s nothing new here and even the action sequences seem predictable and passé.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. A mild disappointment, but only because 1, 3 & 4 were so superb.

The trailer for this fifth Mission Impossible movie showcases a few choice clips of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) holding on to the side of an ascending jet in a death-defying stunt. Hunt yells for his tech assistant, Benji (Simon Pegg), to open the door so that he can enter the plane before being blown clear by rapidly increasing wind shears. Benji opens the wrong door, which generates laughter from the audience, and we’re on to the next high-octane scene in the two minute promo for the film. In the actual movie, this sequence serves as the opener and is a standalone action segment that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. The nail biting, physics fudging plane-hang is there simply to grab the audience’s attention from the start and to set the pace and tone for the rest of this action packed summer blockbuster. The episodic opener is reminiscent of the M:I TV series, which would occasionally use cliffhangers as intros to episodes (Alias did this extensively as well). The problem here is that the “hanging from a jet” set piece is the finest action sequence in the film—with the underwater and motorcycle scenes coming in a close second. I contend that the opening passage should’ve been employed as the climactic action piece and integrated into the narrative. As things stand, this opener is an exciting, yet utterly meaningless, midair spectacle that’s ultimately a missed opportunity, an egregious misappropriation of energies and a self-indulgent exercise by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. As for the rest of the action scenes, they’re well choreographed and executed, but they aren’t nearly as spectacular as the ones exhibited in the last two M:I films. Though the underwater sequence gets props for being the most ambitious and creative action beat in the film, the motorcycle chase, though pulse-pounding, isn’t all that much better than what we’ve seen in the Bourne or modern Bond movies. The story is serviceable but has some noticeable deficits: there’s very little genuine jeopardy (since we know that none of the main characters are going to die), the villain is mediocre and the so-called romance between Hunt and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) is painfully tepid. Cruise, fittingly, coasts through the plot as if on cruise control, but doesn’t bring anything new to his character beyond what’s already been established in the earlier movies. As for the rest of the cast, Pegg is predictably comedic, Jeremy Renner hits his marks but is disappointingly perfunctory and Ving Rhames is nothing more than an ambulatory cardboard standup of his character. Of the new additions to the cast, Ferguson is far better in her action scenes than in her acting scenes and Alec Baldwin, though a bit stiff as the suit with shifting loyalties, delivers the only true standout performance in the film. Bottom line: Rogue boasts some frenetic action scenes, decent acting and a mildly diverting story. However, beyond those few elements, there’s little else to recommend the film. While Rogue is still a giant fulcrum swing better than M:I II, it doesn’t even come close to the quality of the other films in the series. Though it’s hard to put a finger on what inhibits the film the most, there’s definitely something lacking here. Let’s hope Paramount Pictures discovers that missing ingredient before approving the next mission.

Terminator Genisys (PG-13)

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Directed by: Alan Taylor
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger
July 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Terminator Genisys
His first time back to the franchise since his stint as the Governator.

“It used our own bombs against us.” Shades of 9-11.
A thinly veiled reference to that fateful day in 2001. It’s a plot device that’s grown tired from overuse, especially since it seems to be an easy way to illicit an emotional response from the audience. A highly exploitative plot contrivance.

“Use my hands for something other than killing.” #TMI
It’s hard to see Arnold whittling animal figures out of wood as a pastime.

“We take back our world.” Yeah!
And simultaneously avoid Judgment Day, which will pretty much wipe out the events from the earlier films.

The first tactical time weapon. Fascinating.

“The futuristic not set.” A central axiom of these movies.
Correction: Should read “The future is not set.” Curse you Twitter! It thinks it’s being helpful by suggesting similar words, but it just messes me up. In a darkened room with a darkened phone screen and tiny buttons, it’s easy to select the wrong word.

Genisys is Skynet. Thanks for spelling it out for us.
I really wish the writers would’ve let us figure this out on our own instead of outright announcing it several times during the movie.

“Come with me if you want to live.” Don’t have to ask me twice.
This is one of the better lines in the movie, but it seems like I’ve heard it before somewhere.

“So you’re the one I’ve been waiting for all my life.” Nice double entendre.
A funny line that reveals the movie’s underpinning predestination plot.

“I’m old, not obsolete,” says Pops. Actually, Pops was pretty obsolete when fighting his younger self.
Good thing he brought backup. Wise old android.

The doppelgänger scene with two Kyle Reese’s is daft. Reference #
StarTrek for many examples of this.
What if Sarah had guessed wrong? Kyle would have to hobble around for the rest of the movie…which is actually a pretty cool character limitation.

“Why hold onto someone when you know you’ll have to let them go?” #MeaninglessGesture
Absolutely true…from an automaton’s perspective. A prime example of how human emotions can transcend the cold, hard logic of a machine.

A #TotallyConnected life. Frightening!
This type of technological convergence is on the horizon. Its implications are exciting and frightening all at the same time.

Scarface meets his much younger mother. #Paradox

How can a school bus be armed and extremely dangerous?
Poor dialog alert.

Why do maximum destruction action sequences always seem to take place on the #GoldenGateBridge?
Reference: Fantastic Four (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), etc.

Pops gets an upgrade. He’s not so obsolete after all.

Kyle Reese meets a boy version of himself. Shouldn’t the universe implode? #
BackToTheFuture
Dr. Brown would have a few choice things to say on the subject.

Final analysis: a patchwork plot from the earlier films that suffers from a lack of originality.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Some clever ideas prevent this from being a dog. Arnold’s presence is a plus.

During my formative years, my mom periodically had a Musgo night; that is, a dinner where everything in the refrigerator “Must Go” before it goes bad. Like most kids, I hated leftovers, especially when ingredients that had no business being thrown together ended up in the same dish. What does all of that have to do with the new Terminator movie? Genisys, the fifth film in the franchise, takes a Musgo approach to its story line by including characters, concepts, plot threads and action segments from each of the previous four films. The resultant thematic mélange, though clever at times, is often formulaic, oblique or flat-out uninspired. If it feels like you’ve seen this movie before, you have…several times over. In fact, amplifying the movie’s pervasive sensation of déjà vu are excised clips from The Terminator (1984) and the inclusion of the liquid metal adversary from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Since the liquid metal man does very little to advance the plot and has an early exit from the story, one wonders why it was necessary to bring him back in the first place? Perhaps director Alan Taylor just wanted to see how modern CGI could bring the morphing machine to life, but the harsh reality here is that the new FX aren’t that much better than the ones in T2, which have held up remarkably well over the decades. As such, the liquid metal villain’s presence in the film is superfluous, gratuitous and ridiculously shoehorned. Still, you have to tip your hat to the writers, who’ve served up a reheated version of the earlier movies and passed it off as a new film. It’s a writing ploy that’s just as insidious as Skynet’s systematic strategy for taking over the world. As long as people keep filling theater seats, the franchise can endure indefinitely since there are infinite insertion points available to time traveling characters. This film operates on two levels: diehard fans will appreciate the pastiche plot, which features many elements from the earlier films in unique combinations, while newcomers will just enjoy the film as the popcorn entertainment it is without getting too overwhelmed by the improbable genealogies, mind-bending paradoxes and convoluted timelines that have become staples in the Terminator series. As such, Genisys is a unique sequel that can be experienced either as an introduction to the series or as a standalone chapter in the ongoing Terminator saga. This new trend, where Hollywood studios are producing sequels with origin story elements, is an extremely clever way of introducing a whole new generation of potential fans to a franchise. Insidious indeed. Another area of the movie that bears scrutiny is the acting, which is fairly lackluster across the board. Other than Ah-nold and the barely-there support from veterans like J.K. Simmons and Courtney B. Vance, the cast is filled with fresh faces (Emilia Clarke and Jason Clarke) with insufficient star power, with the exception of Jai Courtney (Divergent). The dearth of big name actors, along with the reheated plot and average visual effects, signifies a halfhearted commitment to the project by Paramount Pictures. Sure, Genisys is a big budget summer tentpole, but nothing about its production screams “prestige.” The whole proceedings has a “let’s just throw another sequel out there and hope it makes a profit” feeling to it. Hopefully the next, inevitable, sequel will eschew this film’s Greatest Hits narrative style and actually craft an original screenplay. The fate of humanity just might depend on it.

Inside Out (PG)

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Directed by: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Starring: Amy Poehler
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Inside Out
A high bar, to be sure, but this is certainly among the very best.

“I Lava You.” A sweet animated short. #Lava
At first I was dubious as to where this cartoon was going, because of the singsong nature of its narrative, but in the end this is a memorable, heartwarming short.

Joy meets Sadness. Don’t see them becoming friends.
Sometimes I’m just dead wrong.

“Family Island is amazing!” #CoreMemories
This concept is utterly fascinating and illustrates the importance of the major events and experiences in our lives and how they can shape who we are…positively and negatively.

“I’m starting to envy the dead mouse.” #NewDigs
It’s always difficult to start over in a new area, especially if it’s radically different from what you’re used to. The movie ably captures the feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and loss that can occur during these times of transition.

“Congratulations, San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza!” #BroccoliTopping
A really funny scene, made even funnier by Anger’s brusqueness.

#MindManuals #LightReading

Train of Thought. Clever!
Even though it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, this is a fun concept.

“Can I say the curse word now?” Ha!
Ironic that anger is often the movie’s primary source of comic relief.

Dad’s #BrainOnHockey scene is frighteningly accurate.
And utterly hilarious! Zoning out while watching sports is an innate ability possessed by most men. Some men have even perfected it into an art.

“We’re deconstructing!” Brilliant visuals.
A very clever scene with some mind-blowing animation.

“There’s Déjà Vu. There’s Critical Thinking. There’s Déjà Vu.”
I think they just wanted to see if the audience was paying attention. Paying attention.

“Take her to the moon for me.” Bing Bong’s sacrifice is moving beyond words.
Grab the tissue box…this is a rough scene.

“For Riley!” Hilarious.

Sadness saves the day!
You just knew it would happen this way. A predictable, yet satisfying, ending all at the same time. Hooray for the underdogs!

What’s poo-berty?

Final analysis: an absolutely brilliant premise that’s executed to near perfection.
In fact, I honestly feel this is the most ingenious concept Pixar’s ever devised…and that’s really saying something.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A thought-provoking, tender years tale that hits all of the right emotional notes.

Ever looked at someone and wondered, “What’s going through their mind right now?” The creative minds at Pixar Studios took that thought and turned it into an animated feature called Inside Out. The movie focuses on a young girl named Riley and her emotional and mental processes as she deals with a cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Instead of merely showing us Riley’s emotional struggles externally, director Pete Docter (Up) gives us a glimpse into the girl’s mind in order to observe, firsthand, the full spectrum of feelings she experiences. Riley’s individual emotions are personified by Joy, Sadness, Anger and others. Each of the emotions has a matching personality, i.e.: Joy is infectiously ebullient; Anger is violently explosive, etc. It’s been noted by some leading doctors and psychiatrists that the brain is the executive control center of the entire body. Pixar artists have cannily appropriated that factoid for their story by creating a central control panel inside Riley’s brain…the main operations center where the assorted emotions call the shots for Riley’s every thought, mood and behavior. But Riley isn’t merely an automaton, or a marionette whose strings are pulled by the tiny characters inside her brain. What’s really fascinating about the story is that Riley has volition apart from her own emotions, which is true-to-life since cogitations and cold hard logic can occasionally win out over emotions. The fact that Riley’s choices can override what’s going on inside her brain infuses the story with a great deal of anxiety and mystery since we, along with Riley’s emotions, often have no idea of what’s coming next. In these instances, Riley’s emotions must react to an unforeseen event, like when a life experience creates a core memory. The reverse also holds true as Riley is often deeply affected by her emotions and seems utterly powerless to regulate them. Some of the best twists in the movie occur when our young heroine is overcome by a particular emotion, like when Sadness does a number on Riley during her first day at the new school. This story device, where the action intercuts between Riley’s brain and what’s happening in the real world, generates tension throughout the film and effectively illustrates the disconnect between thoughts and feelings that we each must learn to reconcile. The world Pixar creates to represent the inside of Riley’s brain is truly astounding. The architecture of the mind is based on real science but is organized and visualized in a manner that reflects the thought process of an 11-year-old girl. The different sections of Riley’s personality, as well as the way memories are created, stored and discarded are brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. But not everything in the film is based on real world science. Some story elements, like the Train of Thought, are just there for fun. This film, which reveals a great deal about the human condition by examining the thoughts and feelings of an angst-ridden preteen girl, will go down as one of Pixar’s finest…which is no small claim when considering the studio’s back catalog of superlative animated films. Inside delivers an emotional wallop that’s rivaled only by the end of WALL-E (2008) and the beginning of Up (2009). The abounding movie magic contained within its narrative, along with its clever conceit, touching story and universal appeal, has insured that Inside will be enjoyed for generations to come. This 15th Pixar film has it all and is a shoo-in for Best Animated Feature and, perhaps, even for Oscar’s top prize. For a movie that’s all about the brain, Inside Out has a tremendous amount of heart.

Jurassic World (PG-13)

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Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Jurassic World
That’s really why we watch these movies, right?

Nice #Psyche moment with the bird foot.
Nice setup for the attack of the birds later in the movie.

“If something chases you...run.” That goes without saying in these #
JurassicPark films.
Although, if it’s T-Rex, your best bet is to stand still since its visual acuity is based on movement.

“More teeth.” #IndominusRex #PlayingGod
So here we have the beginnings of the ethical debate over scientific responsibility vs. consumer demands for newer, better attractions at the park. The argument is broached ad nauseam throughout the movie. You might say that such fixation on the topic is like beating a dead stegosaurs.

#Mr.DNA sighting.
Remember him from the first film? A nice inside gag.

The restricted area is like half the island. #BadOmen
“What have they got in there, King Kong?”

“Accept that you are not in control.” The essence of #Chaos.
It’s also one of the steps in A.A.

“Bigger than expected.” #KingKong size? #IndominusRex

#RaptorTraining #Frightening
The very idea that raptors can be trained is hokey as heck, but it makes for an interesting section of the film…especially when the gatekeeper falls in.

“War’s part of nature.” But is it ethical to bring nature to a war?
This whole subplot with Vincent D’Onofrio is utterly inane. Using raptors as foot soldiers? What could possibly go wrong with that plan? If the raptors are hungry for human flesh, I doubt they’ll discriminate between different sides of a conflict.

The Raptor #FieldTest comes sooner than expected.
This is one of the better action sequences in the movie. Unlike the campy Godzilla vs. Rodan style final conflict, this scene actually made me slide forward in my seat a couple inches.

“Were those claw marks always there?” #DinoRuse
Guess dinosaurs enjoy a good pedicure too.

Don’t move #DonutMan.
Oops, guess the hybrid part of Indominus is a better hunter than a plain old T-Rex. My bad.

Pet a #Raptor at your own risk.
A raptor petting zoo? That’ll be the day.

#Code19. Means #RunAndScream.
If you reverse the 19 and add another 1 at the end you’ll have a number that pretty much sums up their situation.

“Evacuate the island.” Please don’t. I wanna see what happens.
Besides, the movie would be pretty short otherwise.

Bigger. Scarier. Cooler. #SuperSizedDinos
Maybe it’s just me, but weren’t those diminutive Compys from The Lost World (1997) pretty scary when they worked in concert? “Size matters not.”

#OffRoad “The full Jurassic World experience.”
Of course, the kids don’t stop to consider the size of the dinosaur required to tear a hole that large in the fence. Impetuous youth.

#DinoKickball
Bet the kids wish they’d have stayed “on road.”

To be on the safe side, jump on two.
Kicking myself for not using the hashtag #JumpOnTwo. A narrow escape and one designed with 3D in mind.

“It’s killing for sport.” And so far the #IndominusRex is pitching a shutout.

#
TheBirds, Jurassic style.
The hashtag is, of course, a reference to the terrifying Hitchcock film. This sequence is like a turkey shoot but in reverse. How convenient that all of the humans are corralled into one area so that the strafing Pterodactyls can pick them off one by one.

Nice shot, #BeardDude.

“Do not shoot my Raptors!” That’s a first.
My, how far we’ve come from “Shoot her!’

“That thing’s part Raptor.” Gee, I couldn’t have guessed that.
This is an utterly ridiculous reveal since we all knew what dinosaurs were commingled inside Indominus’ DNA back when the fierce behemoth scratched up the wall…and hid in the security blind spot.

How to tase a Raptor.
Very carefully. Avoid its teeth and claws at all costs. Oh, and watch out for the tail too.

2 Raptors and 1 Rex. Where have I seen this scenario before?
This is Exhibit A for how contrived the movie is. The storyboarding here is eerily similar to the climactic T-Rex gang up in the first Jurassic Park movie.

Guess what #IndominusRex. There’s always a bigger fish.
Thank you, Gui-Gon Jinn.

“Stick together for survival.” Memorable #SecondDate.
A decent pickup line only to be used in survival situations.

Final analysis: echoes many scenes/concepts from the earlier films, but super sizes everything.
In many respects, this film is a regurgitation of various elements from the earlier trilogy—there’s very little new thought here.

The film’s moral of humans always needing a bigger, better thrill is as subtle as a jackhammer in a library.
And the fact that the point was driven home repeatedly in the movie reveals just how stilted this topic is—prehistoric preachiness.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. If a maximum destruction #CreatureFeature is on the menu, this one’s for you.

Ever wonder what Jurassic Park (1993) would’ve been like if Nedry’s (Wayne Knight) debacle hadn’t happened and the dinosaur park had actually passed the inspection? This fourth JP installment answers that hypothetical question by picking up the action several years after the park’s opening. Miraculously, the calamitous effects of “chaos” have been averted up to this point, but that’s about to change—those disreputable InGen geneticists have concocted a brand new “hybrid” dinosaur, which was designed less out of scientific curiosity than the need to boost flagging attendance at the park. Besides subplots involving raptor training (and the daffy plan to use them as infantry in a war), the unethical choices made by scientists and shareholders who place a premium on profits over people, an insipid romance between Pratt and Howard, the latter’s inadequacy at connecting with/taking care of her teenage nephews and those same teens being imperiled at every turn, the story is dominated by its new dino on the block…the Indominus Rex. As the central crux of the movie, Indominus serves as antagonist, new park attraction, catalyst for catastrophe, emblem of its creators’ avarice and hubris, McGuffin and embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the film. The name pretty much says it all—Indominus is the incarnation of a bigger, better breed of dinosaur (the first genetically engineered dino in history), created for the sole purpose of entertaining onscreen and in theater spectators. This bifurcated function is both fascinating and bitterly ironic. In the same way that Jurassic World patrons have become bored with the same old dinosaur exhibits, so too have theater attendees grown weary of the by-now standard monster melees involving T-Rex’ and raptors. The Spinosaurus was the answer to this “supersize syndrome” in JP III (2001). Here it’s Indominus: an unnatural amalgamation of a T-Rex and some other unspecified dino, whose true identity is preserved as a “surprise” for the end of the movie. That supposed big reveal exposes a major fallacy on the part of the writers, who’ve grossly underestimated the intelligence of the audience; most people will have solved the tenuous mystery about the same time that Indominus goes all Wolverine on the habitat wall. As one of the story’s prominent through lines, the flaccid subplot involving Indominus’ shrouded origins is egregiously anemic. Equally contrived—and telegraphed from earlier events in the movie—is Indominus’ demise. It’s clear that director Colin Trevorrow intended for Indominus’ comeuppance to be an unexpected twist, but, just as with the disclosure of the creature’s actual genetic makeup, the audience is way ahead of the writers. World’s attempt at providing even more extreme dino attacks than those featured in the earlier films is undermined by action sequences that were lifted right out of the first JP, especially when the two raptors pounce on Indominus (T-Rex in the original film). Also, Howard coaxing the T-Rex with a flare, just like Jeff Goldblum did in JP, is a ridiculous retread. The Pterodactyl attack is visualized in a manner so similar to Hitchcock’s The Birds that the scene plays out like a parody of the classic thriller, only on a grander scale and with modern FX. Has the ingenuity that once flourished in this groundbreaking franchise gone extinct? Another drawback to this film is that none of the major characters from the original trilogy appear here. Since we aren’t invested in the lives of the characters, we really don’t care if they end up as dino snacks or not. Pratt cuts a heroic figure as the raptor whisperer, but we learn next to nothing about his back story. Howard is one step short of annoying as the self-important park executive who exhibits poor parenting skills and, inconceivably, even worse management skills. Ultimately, the missing ingredients here are fun, excitement and genuine suspense. The first JP possessed all of those elements in spades by building a world of wonder and terror that resulted in a one-of-a-kind cinematic thrill ride. World feels unnecessarily rushed, as if it were constructed merely to whisk us along from one dino dustup to the next. The bare bones plot is expeditious, perfunctory and agonizingly formulaic. What little story exists here (the heavy-handed sermon on the fickle fads of humans, the dangers of playing God, the reminder to never leave kids alone in a dino park, etc.) serves as filler between the links of an unending helix of action sequences. My sincerest hope is that the makers of the next JP film will invest more time and energy into character development and a compelling story. Additional suggestions: bring back the joy and awe from first film and throw a spotlight on some of the ancillary dinosaurs—the sick triceratops scene in the first JP was exhilarating and touching and added a good deal to the story without defaulting to yet another meaningless action sequence. If the sequel fails to demonstrate a higher degree of creativity than this dismal entry into the series, we’ll have to christen the next test-tube dino Ignominious Rex.

Tomorrowland (PG)

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Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: George Clooney
May 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Tomorrowland
Whereas Country Bears (2002), The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and The Haunted Mansion (2003) were all based on Disney attractions, this film is named after an entire section of the park.

Nice Tomorrowland alterations to the standard Cinderella’s castle Disney opener.
The fanfare sequence gets a futuristic upgrade. A creative flourish that recalls the Paramount peak morphing in the Indiana Jones films.

“The future is scary.”
Actually, the future is the future; it’s our perception of it that colors our emotions, one way or the other. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Clooney’s foreboding statement is Dr. Brown’s encouraging affirmation in Back to the Future III (1990), “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a great one.”

The scene where the kid tests his jet pack is reminiscent of #TheRocketeer.
Skidding to a halt in the middle of a fallow field is a common denominator between both movies, but this film’s sequence is set during the day while The Rocketeer’s (1991) was filmed at night…and involved a statue rather than a real person.

It’s a Small World After All. The ride within a ride. Very cool.
This sequence is a lot of fun. It really taps into the excitement and mystique associated with the secret passageway fantasy trope, a la the magical coat closet in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005).

A thumbs up from the fixit robot.

“It’s hard to have ideas.” #HumanLimitation
Especially in postmodern times, when there seems to be a paucity of new thought.

The Tale of Two Wolves. Which one will you feed?
This motivational anecdote has been done to death in recent films. Since the moral of the story actually factors into this film’s climax, we’ll let it slide this once.

The Tomorrowland pin is like the #OneRing.
Bilbo and Frodo could see a metaphysical dimension atop the physical one by using the One Ring in The Hobbit and LOTR. The Tomorrowland pin functions in a similar manner, with the notable exception being that its user can’t see both dimensions simultaneously—only the futuristic environs. This causes obvious problems since the traveler is completely blind to objects and boundaries in the physical world as they move through the future city, which leads us to…

Trip down the stairs. A creative way to layer the Tomorrowland world over ours. #FindAField #HolodeckTech
I’m glad Casey took my advice and found a wide open space with which to explore Tomorrowland. Less contusions and concussions that way.

#BlackHole comic book. #BlastToThePast
Of course, The Black Hole (1979) was produced by Disney. Trivia: TBH was the studio’s first PG rated film.

Time Bomb. Cool concept/visual.
Although it does have a Clockstoppers (2002) freeze-frame vibe to it.

Last pin. New wrinkle.

“We are the future.”
“We are the world, we are the children.”

Holo-dog. Clever idea.
Don’t worry; his bark is way worse than his bite.

Wonder if Disneyland will make a Bathtub Ride based on this movie.
They have a teacup ride, right? Why not a Bathtub Ride? They’d have to design it as a water ride, though. Towel not provided. You can purchase one at the line entrance for $20.

“It’s not personal, it’s programing.”
Whenever someone says it’s not personal it always is. Correction: programming. Darn Twitter didn’t underline it as being misspelled.

“Well zippity doo for you.” Ha!
Another Disney inside gag.

The Eiffel Tower splits in half to become a rocket platform. Getting a bit #FarFetched.
My suspension of disbelief was completely obliterated by this scene. Some might find this launch sequence to be a unique way of utilizing the famous Parisian building, but I thought it was exceedingly daft and contrived beyond belief. There are a million other places on the planet to hide a space rocket, and the majority of them would’ve made more sense.

Flashes of the future. Hold on to your hat.
You’d think that if she saw it coming she would put her hand on the cap to keep it firmly in place. Casey either has poor judgment or slow reaction time.

“You want to sink.” Though overly doom and gloom, this is one of the better villain monologues ever.
Remember when Syndrome catches himself monologuing during a climactic scene in The Incredibles (2004), an animated smash hit helmed by this movie’s director, Brad Bird? Since Bird was so openly critical of villain monologues in that earlier film, you just knew he’d take painstaking efforts to insure that Nix’ sermonizing speech was incredible…and it is.

Kids walk through a stargate to recruit the citizenry of the new Tomorrowland. I want one.
A pin, that is. The teens hand them out at random like Golden Tickets in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Final analysis: contains imagination and creativity but never quite achieves the state of awe it strives for.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. There’s plenty of movie magic here, but the pedestrian plot is a major drawback.

Despite its apparent surfeit of creativity, Disney’s Tomorrowland is simply a smoke-and-mirrors production that’s every bit as sleek, superficial and soulless as its titular city. Though saturated with technological wonders and mind-blowing visuals that pop out at us from every square inch of the screen, the futuristic metropolis is little more than empty artifice. It’s a cold, mechanical world where a bright future is subverted by a sinister all-seeing orb…this movie’s answer to Sauron’s baleful eye in LOTR. The trouble here is that instead of taking the time to craft a world that’s genuinely groundbreaking in conception and application, the “creative” minds at Disney Studios have merely settled for a pastiche approach, and the resultant movie suffers dearly for that decision. The first story derivation involves a flashback to George Clooney’s character as a boy. Young Frank Walker excitedly demonstrates the capabilities of his homemade jet pack at a science fair and is rejected out of hand by the movie’s antagonist, Nix (Hugh Laurie). By now, this science fair opener has been done to death in Disney films (reference Meet the Robinsons (2007) and last year’s Big Hero 6). Additionally, the jet pack was used extensively in The Rocketeer (1991). The Tomorrowland pin allows a person to walk around the futuristic city, but real world boundaries still exist, which limit the extent of a person’s movements in the alternate realm. This is an extremely clever concept (and it’s executed very adeptly in the movie), but it also hearkens back to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck. During the movie’s climactic events, characters use an energy portal to travel back and forth between present reality and the future dystopia, and it functions in a similar manner to ST:TOS’ Guardian of Forever (“The City on the Edge of Forever”) and the eponymous apparatus in the three Stargate TV series’. These are just a few examples of how the movie’s writers have borrowed liberally from other sci-fi/fantasy films. And then there’s the shameful product placement in the comic book shop, which features merchandise from Disney, Marvel and Lucasfilm (all owned by Disney), to the exclusion of the many other brands and products you’d find in a real comic shop. And then there’s the Eiffel Tower as rocket launch pad sequence which, despite earning points for its ingenuity and attempt at providing a history lesson, is utterly ridiculous…one of the dopiest plot devices/set pieces I’ve witnessed on the big screen in a great while. And then there’s the dubious decision to feature George Clooney as an action hero (his Batman days are long gone). Laurie is serviceable as the movie’s brooding antagonist, but his participation would’ve been more effective had he been cast against type—his part is painfully predictable. Casey’s (Britt Robertson from TV’s Under the Dome) enthusiasm and optimism is really what saves the day, both for the characters onscreen and the movie as a whole. Unfortunately, the bulk of her dialog and the simplistic, straightforward story (free from any emotional complexity or genuine jeopardy) render the whole proceedings as a kind of lavishly produced Disney Channel movie of the week. As such, the preteen set will probably embrace the film, while the rest of the audience will more than likely feel tepid toward the final product. So, will this film inspire a sequel? Tomorrow will tell.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (PG-13)

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Directed by: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr.
May 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Avengers Age of Ultron

Iron Man needs to watch his language.
According to Captain America—the Avengers’ Arbiter of Appropriateness.

“Send out the twins.” Olsen or Wonder?
An inside joke since the Olsen’s sister, Elizabeth, plays the Scarlet Witch in this film.

Hulk deals with the bunker. Perfect man for the job.
The not-so-Jolly-Green-Giant runs right through it as if it was made of balsa wood, never breaking his stride. An impressive visual.

#SentryMode. Cool concept.

“You could’ve saved us.” #Nosebleed

#JarvisIsMyCoPilot
Nice inside gag.

“He’s fast and she’s weird.” Ha!
Quite a pair these wonder twins. But where’s the monkey? Oh wait, that’s from the other comic book universe.

“Will Thor be there?” Women everywhere are thinking the same thing.

A suit of armor around the world. Interesting concept...and wholly improbable.
An extremely daft idea by Stark. His motivation here strains credulity, much like the plot itself.

#StanLee sighting in a bar. #Excelsior!
That’s the name of a starship in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). It also happens to be an exclamation frequently used by Lee which, in Latin, roughly translates as “ever upward.”

Trying to lift Thor’s Hammer scene is hilarious. Echoes of #
TheSwordInTheStone.

“Peace in our time.” Peace through superior firepower. #UltronIsBorn
The latter is a quote from Star Trek: TNG’s “The Arsenal of Freedom.” The former is reminiscent of General Chang’s (Christopher Plummer) line “No peace in our time” in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). A Trek double dip. No extra charge.

“The geometry of belief.” Ultron sets himself up on a throne. Recruits two disciples.
Shades of the antichrist sitting on a throne in the rebuilt temple in the Bible’s book of Revelation.

#AndySerkis is nearly unrecognizable here. Strange to see him out of a CG guise.
A nice bit of surprise casting.

The “mind games” visions contain some fascinating character moments.
These vignettes serve as the only significant source of character development for many of the characters in the film.

Code Green turns into a Code Red.
They should’ve left someone behind to keep an eye on “angry” Banner.

“Go to sleep. Go to sleep.”
“Go to sleep little Hulkie…”

Safe house. Something tells me it won’t be for long.
In action movies, the characters can’t sit around the campfire singing “Kum Ba Yah” for too long.

Graduation then sterilization. Sad story.
This scene contains some good character background for Black Widow. It’s the first time in two movies that I actually felt like I learned something about her character and felt sympathetic toward her.

“Multiplying faster than a Catholic rabbit.” Hilarious!
Or tribbles in a grain bin.

“It’s not a loop. It’s the end of the line.”
Kinda’ like this movie’s runaway elevated train sequence, which is conceptually similar to the one in Spider-Man 2 (2004).

“How about nonce?” Ha!
Downey Jr.’s comedic timing is impeccable.

“I can choke the life out of you without changing a shade.” Great line!
My favorite line in the movie, zucchinis not withstanding. Amazing how eloquent Banner can be compared to his alter ego.

The new guy hands Thor his hammer. Woah!
Does that mean this guy (my comics buddy tells me his name is Vision) is worthy of ruling Asgard?

“It’s about whether he’s right.” Interesting point.
The story flirts with relevance here.

Ultron’s been juicing. #VibraniumSmoothie
I hear mangos are best for sweetening up vibranium’s bitter aftertaste.

“The earth will crack under the weight of your failure.” #Ultron’sMonologuing
A poetic line brilliantly delivered by Spader, who was the perfect choice to voice the titular villain.

“If you step out that door, you’re an Avenger.” Nice moment.
This scene stands out as the only instance where my emotions were engaged during the entire film.

“Ooo, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Way to turn the tables, Fury.

#HideTheZucchini. Hilarious line.
Again, the incisive dialog written for Downey Jr. is perfectly suited to his talents.

“There is grace in their failings.” #RedeemingQuality
An interesting story twist since one AI wants to wipe out the human race because of its flaws and another AI wants to preserve humans because of their flaws.

Banner might swim to Fiji. Just as long as it isn’t Tahiti.
Reference: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Final analysis: a decent follow up to the first film with new heroes and villain and action aplenty.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Overstuffed with action to the point that I need to see it again. Darn it.

Overstuffed is the operative word when describing these Avengers films. They’re chock-full of colorful characters (in colorful costumes) and mind-blowing action sequences. The one thing these movies aren’t overstuffed with, however, is plot. Of course, the Avengers films are exemplars of the summer blockbuster, designed to entertain a mass audience and extract a price from them so as to ensure the release of the next big blockbuster. Filling the role of cinematic roller coaster, these films are breezy, twisty thrill rides that typically place an emphasis on action before story (and just like with a coaster’s ups and downs, the only function of the brief character moments is to bring us to the top of the next peak so that we can take a plunge into yet another exhilarating, gravity defying action progression). In an effort to be fair to the film’s creative elements, I’m not even going to address the top-notch directing, acting, VFX, etc, in my assessment of the film. What ails this sequel is its “everything including the kitchen sink” story. Like its predecessor, there’s enough story in Ultron to fill two to three movies. Likewise, there are enough plot holes and leaps of logic here to fill two to three movies as well. First of all, Ultron’s transformation to the dark side is so quick it gave me a whiplash. Also, Stark’s decision to create Ultron in the first place seems rushed and foolhardy…and extremely contrived since the story sits in idle until the villain is introduced. No one can say that Stark’s heart isn’t in the right place (well, actually…) in attempting to defend the Earth from intergalactic invaders, but has he so quickly forgotten the Iron Monger tragedy in Iron Man (2008)? Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) used Stark’s technology against him in a clear evocation of the 9-11 tragedy. Here, Ultron uses our own planet against us in a unique twist on the WTC and Pentagon terror strikes. 9-11 symbolism is also evinced in the scene where Iron Man shoves Hulk downward through a building, forming a cloud of smoke and debris on the city streets below that’s eerily reminiscent to what we witnessed on that fateful day back in 2001. Whedon certainly isn’t the first superhero film director to create such visual echoes in his films: Christopher Nolan employed 9-11 imagery in each of his Batman films. Another visual motif, which has been repeated ad nauseam in recent superhero movies, is the giant landmass used as WMD set piece. In Superman Returns (2006), Lex Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey) grand scheme was to drop a gigantic, crystalline mass into the Atlantic Ocean, which would wipe out a large portion of the Eastern seaboard with the resultant tsunami. More recently, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), villainous Magneto airlifts an entire stadium, which creates maximum destruction and mass casualties (and speaking of DOFP, that film featured Evan Peters as Quicksilver, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays him here, which is more than a little confusing at first). In this film, Ultron elevates a large section of an Eastern European village with the intention of dropping it like a meteor from the sky, causing an extinction level event on our planet. For the next film, let’s hope Whedon can come up with a more original threat than this tedious and tired story device. As for everyone’s favorite green giant, Hulk is completely underserved in this film. Not only is Hulk sidelined for much of the action, but he’s purposely constrained from doing what he does best—smash things. The only time Hulk really lets loose in this movie is when he goes on a rampage in a city filled with innocent bystanders. This attempt at generating character complexity falls flat and actually diverts us from the main story. Hulk’s contribution to the team during its many melees is negligible at best, which is a massive disappointment. Note to Whedon: in the next film, release the shackles and set Hulk free to fulfill his function on the team (and some character development wouldn’t hurt either). Another disappointment here is the absence of Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson (star of the hit TV show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and prominent side character in the Marvel stable of films) and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts (who is mentioned several times, but never materializes onscreen). Of the ancillary characters actually featured in this film, Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig appears in only one scene…what a waste of an incredible talent. All is not lost, however, as there are a few good character moments in the movie, like when Black Widow opens up about her tragic past and when the team seeks refuge at Hawkeye’s house. But these heartfelt, human segues are few and far between amid the onslaught of confrontations. In the end, if you liked the first film, you’ll probably like this one too. The corollary holds true for those less impressed by the franchise. As overstuffed as the plot is, it all somehow manages to cohere. When all is said and done, kudos goes to Whedon, not for his creative genius in realizing the movie’s many action scenes, but for fitting them all into a canny, wieldy tapestry. He’s a master at keeping all the plates spinning at the same time. Let’s hope they don’t all come crashing down like chunks of a European village in the next film.

Home (PG)

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Directed by: Tim Johnson
Starring: Jim Parsons
March 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Home

The best species at running away. The Boov will move.
And their new home world looks a lot like Earth.

Welcome to Happy Humantown. A nice place if you’re into relocation.
For some reason the word “forced” was erased before I hit the Tweet button. I meant to say “forced relocation,” i.e., a human reservation.

Send vs Send All button. #BadDesign
Isn’t it nice to know that it’s not just us humans who hate this potentially catastrophic email option?

Antarctica...the only place on Earth with no Boovs.
Probably has something to do with their skimpy outfits.

Love the Slushious machine.
Nice mash-up of the words slushy and luscious.

“We are definitely not doomed.” Uh, yeah you are.
Politicians, who put on a brave face so as to not create a panic among the populace, often say the exact opposite of the truth. I guess exposing kids to this reality right off the bat is a wise move.

The party evite is humorous. #ThirdRockFromTheSun
The line in the movie is “third planet from the sun,” but it seemed appropriate to throw out a hashtag for John Lithgow’s TV comedy of an alien family conducting cultural observation on our planet. #SimilarTheme

Boov turns car into a slush-mobile. A thousand bubbles per pint.
For some reason this modified vehicle, though radically different in body style and technological capabilities, reminds me of the flying car concept in The Absent Minded Professor (1961).

“Every time you lie you turn green.” That’s what happens when you drink too much #BustaLime.
A Boov tell. Maybe we can win the planet back with a well played hand of poker.

Boov rhymes with groove.
And with all of those appendages, Oh proves to be a natural at cutting a rug.

Sad-mad. “Humans are more complicated than it said in the pamphlet.”
Don’t worry, Oh, we human males can’t figure out the females of our species either.

Nine mistakes and you’re out. Oh has made 62 mistakes. He’s the #JarJar of the Boov.
This character trait—error-prone—is a bit too telegraphed in the story and is a clear rip off of Star Wars’ JarJar Binks.

Oh cancels his evite just in the nick of time.
And with the crisis averted, the movie ends right here. Not quite.

“Curse you and your tippy toe tallness.”
Though not quite Yoda-esque, the Boov’s assimilation of English has some curious, linguistic aberrations.

Bubble car chase is a lot of fun.
This sequence is the visual zenith of the movie. It’s a frenetic, fun-filled chase scene that’s right up there with the best efforts of Lucas and Spielberg.

The only thing that can halt the Gorg advance is a #BurritoTorpedo.
I think I ordered that at Taco Bell once. Didn’t agree with me.

“He runs toward the danger?” Oh learned that from a humans person.
Must’ve been a soldier or fire fighter.

Captain Oh is given the Shusher. The Boov celebrate their new leader.
Now shush so I can think!

The mother/daughter reunion scene is special. Anyone have a tissue?

“You were scared? I almost made a Number Three!” Hilarious!
The funniest line in the movie, tentacles down.

The real identity of the Gorg is a nice twist. A riff on #
StarTrek’s #Balok.
From the original Star Trek series’ episode “The Corbomite Maneuver,” for all you diehard Trekkers out there. Yes, I am part of the body. Additionally, the subplot involving the Gorg (similar in sound to Gorn, right?) being the last of its kind is similar to the creatures in “The Man Trap” and “The Devil in the Dark.” Also, the repository of Gorg offspring inside the rock is similar to the chamber of silicon nodules in “The Devil in the Dark.” Queen to queen’s level three?

“Every day is best day ever!”
Unless you’re having a bad day.

Final analysis: an alien invasion story with some good laughs and a heartwarming finale.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Fairly pedestrian at times but rallies for a resolution that’s straight from the heart.

The alien invasion premise has been done ad nauseam in films (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien Nation) and TV (V, Earth: Final Conflict) over the years and has become an unofficial sci-fi sub-genre. Unfortunately, the variation on the theme featured in Home isn’t groundbreaking in either its conception or execution. On the run from the dreaded Gorg, the Boov invade Earth and relocate the entire human population to a carnival style reservation area, and no one protests their captivity since they now have an amusement park existence—go with it, it’s a kid’s movie. A young girl, Gratuity “Tip” Tucci (Rihanna), hiding out inside Boov inhabited territory encounters Oh (Jim Parsons), a mistake prone purple skinned alien whose bad decisions and clumsy pratfalls drives the plot. Whereas the standard issue story is the film’s greatest detriment, the unlikely friendship that blooms between Oh and Tip is what makes the film fly. Also, the finale, though certainly not original, is a genuine tear-jerker that should leave most adults in the audience feeling satisfied with the end result; kids will probably love this movie no matter what, thanks to its explosion of colors, sleek technology and fast paced plot. That model—entertaining the kids while servicing the adults with meaningful storylines—was pioneered by Disney and perfected by Pixar. Indeed, for the better part of two decades now, Pixar has been the undisputed leader in producing animated films that succeed at captivating the young minds in the audience while simultaneously engaging adult viewers on a deep emotional level (reference WALL-E and Up). Up until the last few years, most animated films were only able to achieve the former, but now the other major animation houses have begun to adopt Pixar’s adult-centric formula…with great success. Home is certainly an exemplar of that strategy, especially during its surprisingly powerful resolution. In some key ways the ending here reminds me of the one in Disney’s Mars Needs Moms (2011), another animated film that stages a tearful reunion between mother and child during the movie’s climactic passage. In the end, Home isn’t Earth-shattering, but it is a heartwarming tale of courage, compassion and companionship. Above all, the film shows us, in stark contrast to Boov mores and mannerisms, what it really means to be human. They say that home is where the heart is. If true, it shouldn’t be too hard to find room in your heart for Home.

Insurgent (PG-13)

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Shailene Woodley
March 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Insurgent
I got it from the movie poster. A nice turn of the phrase “defy gravity.”

Peace is an obligation.
Marital Law is immediate. War is imminent.

“You killed us all.” Bleak nightmare.

Tris self-sheers. She wanted to do something different.
Her new coif makes her look like the girl in The Fault in Our Stars. Correction: self-shears. Also, Twitter doesn’t have an italics feature, otherwise I would’ve italicized the word “do” to create a pun with the shortened version of hairdo. And now I’ve ruined my magic trick by explaining it.

Jeanine inspects the founder’s version of the AllSpark.
This rectangular, rune-scrawled object also reminds me of the artifact in The Fifth Element (1997).

Peter shouldn’t have insulted Tris’ parents.

The easy way...but under protest.
It’s not the same as the “easy way” in Back to the Future II (1989), though.

Why doesn’t Caleb help out Tris when she’s attached?
I only ask this because he just made his first kill. Yes, he’s probably in shock over such an action, but his sister’s life is literally hanging in the balance. Correction: attacked. The new predictive function on iPhones thinks it’s being helpful when presenting words that look similar to one another. In a darkened theater, with a darkened phone screen, it’s easy to select the wrong word. The defense rests.

Welcome to Fort Factionless.

Don’t call Four Tobias. He won’t even let his mother call him that.
It’s not wise to call Indiana Jones “Junior” either.

“I always loved watching him sleep.” #Creepy
Unless you’re a betrothed Minbari.
The dystopian landscape is really well done in this film.

Fittingly, all Candor clothing is black and white.
‘Cause that’s the way they see the world. Get it?

“May the truth set you free.” And destroy your reputation and alienate your friends.
I meant to say, “alienate you from your friends.” But I trust the point was made.

“I killed Will.” Chills!
A very well-acted scene as Tris resists the truth serum with every ounce of her strength so as to not reveal her deep, dark secret.

“Thank you for your candor.” Up yours!
Or as Scotty would say, “Up your shaft!” (ST:III)

Jeanine is searching for a “special” Divergent. Gee, I wonder who that could be.

10% Divergent equals a bullet to the head.
This story element, which doesn’t appear in the book, is very effective in ratcheting up the tension.

Four shooting Eric cheapens his death. I much prefer Tris stabbing Eric in the book.
It was too soon to knock off the arrogant henchman. The audience needed to derive a greater feeling of vindication and satisfaction from Eric’s death. As filmed, it’s just a shallow slaying.

I could’ve skipped seeing Four’s tattoos again.
I know this gratuitous scene was placed here just for the teenybopper fan girls in the audience, but seeing Four’s tattoos once was quite sufficient. Actually, I could’ve skipped such a visual altogether, but that’s just me.

“We have plenty of guards.” Now that’s cold.
Jeanine shows Peter no respect, just like Peter shows Tris no respect. Bitterly ironic.

First sim: Tris must rescue her mother from a burning, flying house.
This is a superbly crafted sequence, but it’s overlong and overblown.

“Scary boyfriend skills.” Gotcha.
This is a pretty weak “Ah-ha!” moment. In the book, Tris knows she’s in a sim because Four grabs her on the shoulder where her bullet wound is, something her caring boyfriend would never do.

Amazing FX on the building demolitions.
If you’re into large-scale destruction.

“Are you real?” Better check his tats to make sure it’s really Four.
On second thought, let’s not.

Tris confronts her dark side.
This good half/bad half conflict has been done ad nauseam throughout TV/film history. The earliest example I can recall is when the transporter splits Capt. Kirk into good/evil halves in TOS’s “The Enemy Within.”

Divergents...the true purpose of the experiment.
As the culmination of the five factions, this revelation isn’t that much of a surprise; nor is the fact that they should be looked upon differently since they’re…different.

There’s hope beyond the wall.
But is there any hope for those inside the wall? Stay tuned.

A mass exodus of Divergents.
See you later Factionistas!

Final analysis: a solid follow-up to the first film, with some significant twists from the book.
Actually, the divergences from the book are extensive. Here are just a few: Marcus has a more prominent role in the action, there’s no AllSpark artifact and the loyal Dauntless join with the factionless to march on Erudite as a retaliatory response to the wrong’s committed by Jeanine and her lot in the first film.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Some good action scenes and some superb FX. A solid set-up for the finale.

As sequels go, Insurgent, based on the teen book series by Veronica Roth and the follow-up to last year’s Divergent, is a solid effort. The middle chapter of any trilogy typically has an identity crisis—it’s either too similar to the initial movie or it strays too far in the wrong direction so as to be virtually unrecognizable when measured against the original concept. Whereas you’ll probably be lost if you haven’t seen Divergent, Insurgent stands on its own and is a logical extension of the first film rather than a radical departure from it. The vast majority of middle films will either end with a cliffhanger (i.e., Vader’s mind-blowing revelation that he’s Luke’s father in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back) or the continuation of a journey (i.e., The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). With Insurgent, something strange happens for a middle chapter film…it resolves. In fact, it resolves to the degree that the saga can end right here with the characters living reasonably happily ever after. Of course, there are enough plot threads still dangling out there to justify extending the story, but the fact that it could’ve ended right here is a truly bizarre anomaly for a mid-trilogy film. Shifting gears to production, the bombed out environs are exceptionally well staged here; the rough, rubble riddled landscapes perfectly mirror the arduous psychological and spiritual journey the characters embark upon in the film. Indeed, the physical structures are soon transformed into mental ones as we get a glimpse into the architecture of the mind: Tris is subjected to a new battery of sims, just in case we didn’t get our fill of them in the last movie. Aside from the city exteriors, the only other environment worth mentioning is the Amity faction, which perfectly reflects the natural, serene vibe of its inhabitants. Since there are only a few substantive character moments in the movie, the acting won’t stand out as stellar…more like serviceable. The action sequences are mildly entertaining, but are somewhat standard issue for what we’ve come to anticipate from non-bloody, teen-centric confrontations. So, what can we expect from Allegiant, the final film in the series? Those who’ve read the books might feel like they have an inside track to what will happen, but if this movie’s deviations from book to script are any indication, we could be looking at a significantly different cinematic conclusion to what appears in Roth’s novel. To their credit, these adapted screenplays haven’t been slavish in their adherence to the source material, and the alterations have provided some interesting surprises along the way. And really, not knowing everything that will happen in a movie is part of its allure, right? Purists will probably disagree, but these Divergent screenplays have been faithful in the areas that count, but have deviated only where needed in order to make a good movie…which, at the end of the day, is what matters most. If the concluding chapter is as good as the first two, this will go down as one of the better trilogies in recent years, and second only to The Hunger Games in the YA dystopian market. Let’s hope the studio bean counters resist the urge to split the last book into two movies as was done with the Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games series. The penultimate movie in each of those franchises was disappointing and egregiously added filler just to stretch out the story in order to make more money. This brand of cinematic hucksterism, which compromises artistic integrity, subverts authorial intent and fleeces its audience, is downright despicable. The studio executives who conceived and engage in such practices should be tarred and feathered. I say that with as much candor as I can conjure.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (R)

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Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Colin Firth
February 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Kingsman-The Secret Service
Firth won the Academy Award for Best Actor for The King’s Speech (2010). What does that have to do with this film? Nothing, other than the fact that they both have “King” in the title.

A surprise cameo from a galaxy far, far away.
He’s an over-the-pond professor who did his doctoral thesis on “The Multiplicative Capabilities of Interconnected Moisture Vaporators.” It was released in book form by Tosche Press.

#SamuelLJackson with a lisp is a hoot.
I know it’s mean-spirited to laugh at a person with a lisp, but Jackson’s delivery makes it impossible to keep a straight face.

Holo-glasses...a nifty invention.

“Manners maketh the man.” Firth teaches some thugs a lesson. An exciting fight scene.
And more than a little unbelievable. But it’s also a lot of fun, which is all that matters, I suppose. Correction: “Manners maketh man.”

Amnesia darts would come in handy.
Sometimes a self-inflicted amnesia dart would be helpful.

“Like in
My Fair Lady.” Hilarious!
This is the scene where I knew we had a runaway romp on our hands. Flawless comedic timing.

This elevator ride reminds me of the Haunted House ride at #Disneyland.
Without the silly vertical wall paintings.

The body bag initiation puts things into perspective.

There’s no name for the Chinese “thecret thervice.” I’m dying!
Easily one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Choose a dog...but choose wisely.
At least he didn’t select a Chihuahua.

The skydiving scene is as pulse-pounding as they come.
This was an extremely well executed action sequence that makes you feel like you’re free-falling right along with the rest of the characters.

“Give me a far fetched theatrical plot any day.” Here, here.
Movies with overblown, hyper real action scenes and melodramatic villains have their own unique charm.

Jackson and Firth share a “happy” meal.
Wonder who got to keep the toy.

Fitting Room 3. Bond’s Q would be envious.
Actually, he’s probably the one who invented all of these weapons and devices.

The three J.B.s scene is amusing.
No, one of them isn’t James Brown. Or Josh Brolin. Or Justin Bieber. Gag!

Brutal, protracted fight scene in a Kentucky church.
In truth, it was too long and too bloody for my taste. And how many bullets does Firth’s gun carry anyway…50?

“This ain’t that kind of movie.” Clearly not, from what happens next.
Remember this line. It comes back around to bite Jackson in the ath.

Reconnecting the satellite link. I’m literally biting my fingernails.

OMG! The head exploding sequence is probably the funniest macabre scene I’ve ever seen.
Sometimes, when something strikes my funny bone just right, I just start laughing uncontrollably. This sequence had that effect on me; like I’d inhaled a deep lungful of laughing gas.

Final analysis: the best un-Bond movie ever, with incredible action scenes and humor to spare.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. I haven’t laughed this hard in the theater in quite some time.

I must admit that this film took me by surprise. I knew it was going to be an action packed spy flick (based on the comic book “The Secret Service”), but I had no idea it would have laugh-a-minute hilarity to go along with its thrill-a-minute intensity. Though belonging to an altogether different narrative universe, this film reminds me of last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a very effective mixture of humor and action. That formula works like magic here on a story that boasts a truly unique spin on the by-now hackneyed sub-genre of spy thriller. This might look like a spy movie spoof, but looks can be deceiving—like the dressing rooms inside a particular London tailor shop. This film is actually more like an alternate reality version of a MI6 mission—it’s what a Bond movie would look like if it were directed by Robert Rodriguez. As would be expected, Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson and Mark Strong are all superb in their roles, but it’s really youngster, Taron Egerton, who steals the show as Firth’s protégée and Kingsman initiate, Eggsy (no, it’s not a typo). Egerton plays Eggsy with a chip on his shoulder, but also infuses him with just enough good-natured irreverence and boyish charm to make him appealing to the audience. Kudos goes to director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) for prohibiting his action sequences (with the exception of the church debacle) from running away with the movie. The character development is fairly shallow here, and yet we’re still fully invested in what happens to them, which is somewhat of an anomaly for a contemporary action film. The real star of the movie is the screenplay, written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman. The dialog is razor sharp and witty beyond compare. The story skillfully pokes fun at the spy genre without outright lampooning it. It’s also a well crafted yarn that includes several gobsmacking plot twists. The only caveat here is that the film might be offensive to some viewers (e.g., the pervasive foul language, inappropriate sexual references and mass killings inside a church). The parenthetical items notwithstanding (and lest we forget, this is a Rated R film), this is the most hilarious thrill ride that’s graced the silver screen in quite some time. So has this movie done enough to garner a sequel…or a franchise? In a word, yeth.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Hobbit 3

One last arrow. Make it count.
Both Bard and Legolas run out of arrows in the film. Perhaps this is in response to the negative criticism that characters with longbow skills always seem to have an endless supply of arrows in Jackson’s Middle-earth movies…just like action stars always seem to have an unlimited number of bullets when taking out the bad guys.

A promise stone for the Elven princess.
I guess it’s a Middle-earth version of a promise ring.

The showdown at Dol Guldur is spectacular.
In truth, this is the only action scene in the movie that had any degree of heft or emotional resonance for me. This sequence features a clash of titans…all of the heavy hitters from LOTR are here and the melee, though brief, is a frenetic and catastrophic power struggle that effectively sets the events of LOTR into motion. This confrontation is like a chess match between grand masters, while the rest of the battles in the film resemble that electronic football game where players mindlessly collide with each other or aimlessly meander around the board in fractal patterns. And you’re sure to be shocked at who sends Sauron packing.

Ah, Mithril mail. I’m surprised Thorin was willing to part with it.
After all, Gimli avers that a Mithril shirt is a priceless treasure in LOTR. And, bestowing gifts doesn’t seem to be Thorin’s strong suit, especially when afflicted by the dragon’s madness.

Bilbo absconds with the Arkenstone, but is it in time to avert a war?
You can probably tell from the title that the answer to the question is…negatory.

Were-worms. Wait, don’t these things live on Arrakis not Middle Earth?
The inclusion of these gigantic worms, for the one minute that they’re actually onscreen, is highly gimmicky and utterly superfluous. Isn’t the movie already long enough? This scene should’ve been left on the cutting room floor…with the other, much smaller, worms. Corrections: Middle-earth and wereworms, according to David Day’s bestiary Characters from Tolkien.

Way to use your head, giant troll.
There’s little else going on inside its thick cranium, so might as well use it as a battering ram. Who needs Grond?

Alfred is worthless in a battle. Something tells me he’s going to die horribly.
This guy reminds me of that weasel Beni in The Mummy (1999). Correction: Alfrid.

Thorin sees himself drowning in a whirlpool of liquid gold.
Yes, this is a sign that he’s officially lost it.

Thorin asks his fellow dwarves if they will follow him #OneLastTime.
Props go to the film’s marketing team for establishing this line as a hashtag well in advance of the film’s release.

Legolas finally runs out of arrows. Uh-oh!
Not much of an anxious moment, though, since we know he’s a central character in the future trilogy.

Beautiful landscapes on the “back again” journey.
Although, the trek back is far too short for my liking, and Gandalf’s farewell is a tad reserved when considering all that Bilbo’s done to aid his quest. Thanks for nothing, pointy hat!

Final analysis: a rousing finale to the trilogy and an effective bridge to
LOTR.
Thanks to Jackson and his team of writers, watching all six movies, marathon style, will now be a seamless, albeit bleary-eyed, experience.

Rating:
3 out of 4. Sub-LOTR but still a journey worth taking, if only to see how it ends.

Pre-release reviews have criticized this third Hobbit installment as one prolonged battle with a nearly wholesale absence of character moments. It’s hard to argue with that argument. As a trilogy capper, Five Armies doesn’t even come close to approaching the epic grandeur that Best Picture winner The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) so beautifully achieved by diligently excavating its rich source material. Still, to judge Five Armies against ROTK is pretty unfair. This is The Hobbit, after all; the more remedial epoch of the Middle-earth saga. Of course, that qualification just ends up sounding like a colossal capitulation and a pathetic excuse for this uninspired and heartless affair. One of the main contributors to the film’s mediocrity is that it’s the third movie based on one book, unlike LOTR’s 1:1 book-to-movie ratio. It’s evident after viewing this film (which also includes tidbits from Tolkien’s other works as well as Jackson’s own, original story embellishments) that the director stretched the events from the novel as far as he could…many maintain that he shouldn’t have stretched it quite so far. Again, it’s hard to argue with that notion. The preponderance of highly styled, frenetically paced action sequences coupled with an utter dearth of character moments has forged an extremely lopsided experience. By way of defending the film, some would attest that since extensive character development has been established in the first two films, only minor character work was needed here. On this point I strongly disagree since the movie’s action-palooza plot has created a tone deaf entertainment. The only scenes in the film that engaged my emotions were at the very end when Bilbo returns to the Shire. It’s like I’d been watching over two hours of a FPS video game up to that point and only got about ten minutes of actual movie…empty mental calories with only a morsel of actual story. Some will cite Thorin’s treasure trance as a strong plot point, but I contend that it was handled very unskillfully (Bilbo “tells” us, via his conversation with the dwarves, that Thorin is ill instead of “showing” us) and that this whole subplot is far too similar to Smeagol’s descent into corruption and madness—which is far more compelling than Thorin’s. While Tauriel and Legolas’ through lines finally pay off, their sidebar adventures frequently upstage those of the dwarves—the supposed main characters in the story. As far as the fracas with the firedrake is concerned, Smaug’s presence in the film is far too fleeting and feels like an afterthought. Disappointing! There can be no doubt that Five Armies is a first-rate spectacle, but it seems perfunctory at every turn, just filling in the last details from the book while connecting the dots between The Hobbit and LOTR trilogies. I had far higher hopes (somewhere up in the sky with the eagles, which have become the go-to, deus ex machina saviors of our heroes and have been employed far too often in these Middle-earth tales) for this film and especially for the titular battle, which doesn’t hold a candle to Helm’s Deep and isn’t even worth mentioning in the same sentence as the cataclysmic conflagration at Pelennor Field. Bottom line: Five Armies succeeds at passing the baton off to LOTR. Other than that utilitarian role, there’s little else to recommend the film, unless your threshold for enduring protracted action sequences is somewhere up in the stratosphere...which is, incidentally, where you should also suspend your disbelief while watching the film. Some could grouse, justifiably, that the final farewell to this fantasy franchise is less a tribute to the author than it is a Tolkien gesture. Though getting there wasn’t all that I’d hoped it would be, in the end, I’m just glad to be back again.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (PG-13)

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Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Christian Bale
December 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Exodus-Gods and Kings

Reading entrails. Eww. How barbaric.
Kind of a gross scene to start a Biblical epic with, yes? But at least an alien didn’t burst out of the dead bird’s chest!

A clash of swords...a sign of things to come.
The next time their swords clash, Moses will be banished from the kingdom.

The rain of arrows is spectacular. The rest of the battle isn’t bad either.
The confrontation definitely has a LOTR aesthetic and pace to it, but it isn’t nearly as protracted or flashy as the melees in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films.

Moses visits the viceroy...insists on looking the slaves in the eye.

Moses spares
Breaking Bad’s #AaronPaul from the whip.
Turns out that Paul’s character is named Joshua, the man who eventually succeeds Moses.

Moses learns about his true identity from #SirBenKingsley.
If Kingsley told me my dad was a hippo and my mother was a rhino I’d probably believe him. The man has gravitas.

Moses looses one horse but gets two more.
It’s almost as if someone up there is looking out for him. Of course, Moses had to slay two assassins in order to acquire the steeds. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, I suppose.

Moses answers the three questions correctly and gets to “proceed.”
Most men would die to have such an easy path to pleasure. Just my luck, but whenever I try playing that game it always ends up being twenty questions.

The burning bush sequence is very different, but very effective.
If there’s any scene in the movie that will spark controversy, this is it. Moses’ mud bath and chat with a young boy is way out in left field compared to a traditional interpretation of the burning bush event in the Bible.

Moses returns to Memphis...not the one in Tennessee.
The locals say it’s nice this time of year, but maybe they’re just in d’Nile. Yuk, yuk.

Ramesses watches his boats set ablaze by flaming arrows. A brilliant visual.
These minor acts of rebellion are but pinpricks to the mighty Pharaoh. However, where human agency ends, God’s might begins. Prepare for the twelve plagues.

Hmm...I never knew that crocodiles initiated the plagues.
However, this feeding frenzy is a spectacular feat of CG wizardry…and is also pretty gruesome.

Darkness falls over the city like an ashen shroud. Then the cries of terror ascend. Spine-tingling!
Ironically, this “angel of death” visual is far less elaborate, from an FX standpoint, than the ones in many of the earlier Moses films. Though low-tech and fairly simple to achieve, this sequence is highly effective.

The chariot pileup is awesome.
You just knew Ramesses’ hubris would lead to this end. But it’s still a spectacular cataclysm.

Tornadoes and tsunamis...oh my!
I couldn’t think of a third “T” word, but you get the point.

“They’re my people.” Goosebumps.
Actually, they’re God’s people but since it’s such a great line, and because the actor moonlights as Batman, we’ll let it slide.

Final analysis: a reverent treatment of the Biblical account with minor deviations from the text.

3 out of 4. Though more epic in scale, it still lacks the heart, and faith, of DeMille’s version.

Though not as blatantly sacrilegious as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), Ridley Scott’s rendition of the exodus saga takes occasional liberties with the sacred text which will, undoubtedly, create a great deal of controversy among theological fundamentalists. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium with these big screen Bible features—they’re either poorly produced but theologically accurate or lavishly produced but brimming with questionable creative departures or outright heretical story elements. In Exodus, you can tell that Scott’s intentions were to evince the appropriate degree of reverence toward the source material while making art with some selected story elements. Unfortunately, the results are a mixed bag. The major action sequences look like they were storyboarded by Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg, which is to say they look amazing but are better suited to a blockbuster adventure film than a historical epic. Some of the movie’s major narrative turning points are radically different from what appears in the Bible; chief among them is the head-scratching burning bush episode. Still, the plagues play out pretty much as you’d expect them to (except for the croc crock) and the “death angel” scene stands out as a prime example of how, when it comes to FX, sometimes less is more. Just like in Noah (see my review) however, the divine is often explained away by human reasoning here: the “scientific” explanation of the plagues, the receding of the sea (with the addition of tornadoes just because they look really cool), etc. The characterization of Moses has also been altered for wider appeal since listening to Bale stutter his way through two and a half hours of dialog would’ve been a major detractor to the story’s enjoyment. Bale’s Moses is decisive, confident and heroic: the real Moses struggled to exhibit any of the above attributes and, as a result, had to rely upon God for his strength…which is a major point of emphasis throughout his character arc. As flawed as the patriarch’s portrayal is, Scott’s depiction of the Almighty is downright disturbing. Scott consistently paints God as an angry tyrant. Worse still, this God is revealed as a warmonger when He expresses how pathetically ineffective Moses’ acts of sedition have been and how more aggressive, i.e., supernatural, measures are required in order to bring the evil Pharaoh to his knees. Is this really Scott’s perception of God? If so, it certainly explains the movie’s authoritarian portrait of the Big Guy (Boy?) Upstairs. The forging of the Ten Commandments was a visual extravaganza in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 masterpiece, but, for whatever reason, Scott chose to eschew FX during this dramatic passage—the low key scene sees Moses chiseling the tablets himself while the mental apparition of God stands around and bickers with him. Judging by this scene, it would appear that Scott’s God is also a micromanaging taskmaster (or is just plain lazy). In the end, this film will go down as an entertaining examination of this exilic event, but it certainly won’t be esteemed as a faithful adaptation of the Biblical account. However, Exodus is an updated cinematic spectacle with modern visual effects and big name stars, so it serves its purpose as a sensational, yet superficial, survey of this standout Sunday school story.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence
November 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Hunger Games-Mockingjay, Part I
And Josh Hutcherson. And Liam Hemsworth. And Woody Harrelson. And, posthumously, Philip Seymour Hoffman…the two Mockingjay films will be the last entries in his filmography.

The face of the revolution is an angry one.
And with all that’s happened to her in the first two films, why wouldn’t she be mad?

Katniss visits 12. The ashes of her action.
Yeah, stepping on skulls…not so pleasant. Unless you’re a Terminator.

“Never let them see you bleed.” Snow’s video address promises death for the disorderly.
A spin on the phrase, “Never let them see you sweat.” Snow’s homespun phrase better suits his martial worldview. Blood, after all, is something he’s reminded of every time he swallows.

“What costs more than your life?”
A good question…any answer seems somewhat philosophical, though.

Peeta calls for a cease fire. 13 erupts.
The somber mess hall quickly transforms into something akin to Hogwarts at meal time.

Coin capitulates to Katniss’ conditions.
Coin is played by Julianne Moore, who brings a great deal of nuance to the role. She’s definitely not a villain, but she’s isn’t altogether good either. Her ending speech is so convincing that we can’t help but cheer on a worldview not all that dissimilar from Snow’s. If the story has any meat, this is it.

“The best dressed rebel in history.” Not even close. Leah in Jabba’s Palace.

“Let’s not fire the red ones in here.” Ha!
C’mon, Beetee! You’re no fun.

Katniss visits the wounded in 8. They salute her.
This is a moving scene and is the heart of the film, literally and figuratively.

Snow proves himself a terrorist by bombing a hospital.
Joker did the same thing in The Dark Knight (2008). Also, this is a war crime tactic frequently committed by Hamas…in the real world.

“If we burn, you burn with us!” A great scene that makes an effective propaganda video.
However, by engaging in a political media blitz of their own, aren’t the rebels just as bad as the Capitol? And, by threatening to fight fire with fire, aren’t their tactics similar to Snow’s? It might not be much more than what you’d get on a hot wing, but like I said before, there is some meat on the bone here.

Gale regales the story of 12s demise. Sobering.
However, the account looses a little punch since we’ve already seen the devastation that’s been done to the decimated district.

“Dead by morning.” Code red time.
A threat and a warning all wrapped up into one startling statement.

Prim goes back for the cat. So did Ripley in
Alien and that almost got her killed.
This scene in Alien (1979) always rankled me since it’s just a contrivance for extending the movie an extra fifteen minutes. In this movie it’s just a young girl rescuing her cat, so her actions are more understandable and forgivable…especially since there isn’t a pernicious alien on the loose.

Snow leaves his calling card after the bombing. The message is loud and clear.

Final analysis: a somber opening to the final chapter of this dystopian saga.

A mild disappointment, although the source material itself was weaker than its predecessors.
Without a Games, the structure is looser and the objectives aren’t nearly as well defined as in the first two books/movies.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4. A dark, bleak chapter. Will it be redeemed by a satisfying ending?

I suppose we have the Harry Potter film series to blame for this mediocre movie. In a shamelessly lucrative move, Warner Bros. decided to make two movies out of J.K. Rowling’s final Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Twilight movies soon followed suit by bifurcating Breaking Dawn, the last book of Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster fantasy trilogy. Now, The Hunger Games series has officially established this pattern as a trend by bisecting Suzanne Collins’ final novel, Mockingjay, into two films. The end result for each franchise has been an unsatisfactory setup film followed by a triumphant end to the saga. Mockingjay - Part 1 is a dark, drab affair with too many talking scenes and not nearly enough action. That’s my nutshell evaluation of the film. I temper that rather harsh assessment with the admission that the film does get a few things right. Kudos must be given to director Francis Lawrence for embellishing on the source material and actually detailing the rescue sequence, which the book merely mentions and then forces the characters back in 13 to sit on their hands until the team returns. However, even though the extraction sequence adds some much needed action to the back quarter of the film, the methodical manner in which the scenes are shot isn’t any more cinematic than what you’d find on a well produced spy/political thriller on TV. Though the performances are strong across the board, the characters, save for Katniss, really aren’t given much to do, except for stand around and talk…or posture…or fret…or tell Katniss to say her lines once more with feeling. Case in point: Jeffrey Wright is a fine actor, but he’s relegated to spitting out an incessant string of technobabble in the movie. Beetee is very similar to the eccentric, tech savvy character Wright played in Source Code (2011) with a dash of Q from the Bond films. If there’s one saving grace here it’s the movie’s unflinching insistence on making subtle political commentary, particularly regarding the nature of terrorism, which seems to be prescient since the books were written between 2008 and 2010—several years before the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East perpetrated by Hamas and the Islamic State. Besides incidental topicality and typical teen angst, there really isn’t much more to comment on here. Even though the purpose of this film was simply to set the table for the grand finale, it would’ve been nice if the movie had employed a more engaging script; this uninspired and perfunctory effort is like excess filler used to stretch out a story until the really important events transpire. The movie contains none of the pulse-pounding excitement of its predecessors, which is a profound disappointment. I wish I could say that this sequel left me—as the earlier movies did—hungry for more, but I just can’t. In the final analysis, The Hunger Games without the actual Games is like a hamburger without the meat. Sure, you can eat the bun all by itself, but it won’t be all that appetizing and won’t sustain you for very long. Where’s the beef?

Big Hero 6 (PG)

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Directed by: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Starring: Ryan Potter
November 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Big Hero 6

#Feast is a truly moving animated short.
Just the latest evidence that Disney is rapidly approaching Pixar’s level of quality. Of course, executive producer John Lasseter, who oversees projects for both animation houses, has much to do with this parity.

David vs. Goliath style RC bot battle. Don’t judge a bot by its appearance, though.
Yeah, I wouldn’t dare pick a fight with R2.

“Welcome to the Nerd Lab.”
One suspects that this vibe is similar to the one you’d get in an animation studio, so these scenes are a bit self-reflexive.

Micro-bot exhibition is quite impressive. So long Lego bricks.
It’s amazing how innocent a new technology starts out…and just how quickly its altruistic vision can be perverted.

“Diagnosis: puberty.” Someone should pitch that to #abcfamily.

Fist bump scene is humorous.
This gag pays off dividends throughout the movie.

“There are no red lights in a car chase.” Ha!
This is a thinly veiled reference to Tom Hanks’ oft-quoted remark (“There’s no crying in baseball!”) in A League of Their Own (1992).

The inclusion of #StanLee in the family portrait is clever.
The first successful Marvel integration into a Disney movie. This Easter egg isn’t here by accident…but you’ll have to stick around through the end credits to learn its significance.

The flight scene is exhilarating but recalls similar ones in the #HowToTrainYourDragon movies.

Project Silent Sparrow looks an awful lot like #StargateSG1.
Besides the extra gate, the master shot looks like it was lifted right out of an episode of this long running sci-fi series.

Cool watercolor universe.
Or is it tie-dye? Or is it lava lamp? No I’m not tripping, but the animators sure were.

Nice title reveal in the last scene of the movie.

Final analysis: a high spirited, heartwarming tale of a cuddly robot, a young inventor and a group of nerds.
These nerds fulfill a vital role in the film as comic relief, especially Fred (T.J. Miller), and solid support for the hero.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. A sequel seems all but assured. Be sure to stay through the end credits.

Based on the comic book series (from Marvel, of course) of the same name created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, BH6 tells a very human tale in the midst of a protracted struggle to control a powerful new technology. The movie sets up in a similar manner to Meet the Robinsons (2007), also a Disney animated effort, in the way a science fair/expo experiment is stolen and used to devastating effect by a misguided villain. The exploited technology in this case is millions of tiny microbots, which, when controlled by a person’s thoughts via a headband (similar to the Bowler Hat Guy’s high-tech headgear in Robinsons), can construct a myriad objects, shapes, weapons, etc. Though quite a bit larger, these microbots remind me of the insidiously relentless nanites in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The way the villain uses the microbots as a mobile dais is the kind of spine-tingling image you’d expect to see in a live action superhero film intended for a much older audience. Even though the movie’s main character is young tech geek Hiro (Ryan Potter), the focal point of the film is undeniably the rotund robot, Baymax (voiced with absolutely perfect inflections by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit). The love child of the Michelin Man and EVE from WALL-E (2008), Baymax (this is one silly name…it sounds like Betamax, a technology that didn’t fare too well) is a lovable sidekick with a central processor of gold and a unique skill set…he provides portable medical services. Upon hearing that universal sound of distress, “Ouch!,” Baymax inflates, initiates its programming and launches into triage mode (this brand of activation reminds me of the way the holographic doctor appeared when summoned in Star Trek: Voyager, “Please state the nature of the medical emergency.”). Though Baymax’ skills and enhancements are impressive, as well as a whole lot of fun to watch in action, it’s his compassion and empathy that make his character so appealing. Hiro’s journey is an emotional one and Baymax’ ministrations (mostly psychological) are a salve for the young boy’s tragic loss early in the film. The loss of loved ones lies at the heart of the film and, ironically, provides motivation for the protagonist and antagonist. Even though the film deals with some fairly heavy issues, it is, after all, a Disney movie, and that means the story must have a happy ending. To whit, the hero comes to terms with his loss and the villain is redeemed, to an extent, and they all live... In the end, the story is moving and exhilarating, and you can bet that a sequel will soon be in the works. This is definitely a movie where you feel better walking out than when you walked into the theater. So now the only question that remains is, “Are you satisfied with your care?”

Interstellar (PG-13)

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Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey
November 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Interstellar

Interesting documentary style opening.
The series of retrospective interviews in these opening scenes play out like the real ones frequently seen on the History Channel.

Last okra crop...ever. No big loss for me.
I know I’m probably causing a Southern uprising (doesn’t take much) by making such a statement, but I never developed a taste for this slimy veggie…pod…thing.

Chasing a drone through a cornfield.
More precise verbiage is needed here. The drone is in the air. McConaughey takes his truck trough a cornfield, Twister-style, on a reckless pursuit of the drone.

Updated textbooks...a frightening possibility and one that could be right around the corner.
Book burning was so last century. Now it’s all about revisionist history; the political party that’s in charge gets to determine the proper recitation and redaction of history. Remember, history is written by the winners…and the egomaniacal socialists who ascend to power by deceiving the masses. A tad too on the nose?

The bookcase is trying to communicate with them.
Co-writer, Jonathan Nolan, also uses the Dewey Decimal System on book spines as a means of dispensing the “number” to Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson on Person of Interest, a TV series he created. Clearly he has a yen for dispatching clues to his characters through books…a decidedly low-tech method of conveyance.

Ballgame is postponed by a doozy of a dust storm.

The crew prepares for their “long nap.”
I can use one of those every so often. Like right nowwwwww…….

I learned that paper trick in science class in high school. Also a useful way of explaining warp speed.

Seven years per hour. Not my kind of planet. Although, it does have the best surfing in the universe.
However, if you don’t make it through the barrel, you’re dead.

Letters from home are tearjerkers.
Make sure you have a tissue handy. On second thought, make it a whole box.

Frozen cloud...trippy.
This is the kind of scientifically plausible, world-building detail that really fires my imagination. Even though I wish there would’ve been more of them in the movie, I thoroughly enjoyed the unique and unusual planet concepts featured here.

A race to the ship. I stopped breathing about ten minutes ago.
This entire sequence is one of the finest ever filmed. That’s quite a boast, but this taut series of events is as genuinely nail-biting as they come.

Newton’s third law. Hilarious!
So much for “No one left behind.”

A 3D construct within a 5D reality. My mind has been sufficiently blown.
Leave it to the Nolan brothers to come up with something this mind-bending. The interspatial architecture takes its cues from Inception (2010) and is somewhat Escher-esque in the way it depicts multiple impossible angles/vantages.

Final analysis: a deeply moving story centered on the survival of the human race.
Which just happens to be a sci-fi film.

Rating:
4 out of 4 stars. A modern 2001 that just might be the first legitimate sci-fi Best Picture hopeful.

Okay, so before anyone points out the fact that space-tacular Gravity was up for Best Picture last year, two things: 1. Was it a “legitimate” contender for Oscar’s top prize (I argue no)?, and 2. Can the film even be classified as science fiction since its technology is comparable to contemporary standards and because the story never leaves the solar system, much less the space surrounding the Earth? That said, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi opus, Interstellar, takes us far afield to worlds of wonder; one of which, hopefully, will harbor the holdouts of humanity since we’ve pretty much destroyed our home world by the time the movie takes place (which doesn’t appear to be all that far into the future…frightening!). There are plenty of things to nitpick here—like the fact that Michael Caine’s character ages little over a twenty-three year time span (guess that proves just how timeless he is), that people don’t seem all that distraught over the prospect of eating nothing but corn for the rest of their lives, that a dying planet’s economy could even fund deep space exploration on this scale and that Hathaway, a scientist, is tasked with landing the ship that houses the future of our race—a repository of embryos. Granted, the plot isn’t as airtight as any of the spaceships seen in the film, but it coheres to the extent that it needs to in order to convey its artfully told cautionary tale: consider the movie the unlikely marriage of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006). The filmic mash-up doesn’t end there: There’s a heavy quotation of Apollo 13 (1995) during the suspenseful scenes in space, especially when the ship is violently jostled about and when presumably unnecessary parts are seen falling away from the ship. Nolan also upholds one of Star Trek’s finest traditions in the way his characters systematically explore “strange new worlds.” Although the action frequently crosscuts between characters in different places/times, the film can be subdivided (roughly) into thirds. The first third focuses on the plight of the characters on a desiccated Earth, the second section deals with space travel and planetary surveys and the third segment features the story’s ethereal, unconventional climax. While on the tack of appraising the film, we can cut it right down the middle and call one half character/story driven and the other half action/adventure driven…in short; this is a very well-balanced film and a rarity for the sci-fi genre, which typically places emphasis on the latter over the former. The movie’s themes are legion and invite various readings, which should keep both water cooler enthusiasts and film school students chewing on this cosmic cud for years to come. There are plenty of story elements to evaluate here, such as: science vs. faith, ecosystem entropy, rogue drones, book censorship, time-challenged family dynamics, the finest/worst aspects of humanity in survival situations and the idealistic notion that love conquers all. An analysis of the “they” can also make for a bracing discussion, especially when time is thrown into the equation. For instance, do the Plan B colonists become the 5th dimensional saviors of Earth’s Plan A remnant? Be sure to pace yourself, though; if you’re not careful, such cogitations can cook your noodle. Another plus here is that the movie is fairly feasible and factual where its science is concerned, which should delight lovers of hard science sci-fi (as opposed to soft science sci-fi, a la Guardians of the Galaxy) to no end. And let’s not forget the stellar FX and cinematography that creates the film’s unique look and feel. To whit, Nolan uses absolute silence during the exterior space shots to great effect: remember, in space no one can hear you scream. Hans Zimmer’s atmospheric, organ saturated score produces a distinctly unsettling accompaniment that recalls the otherworldly “classical” soundtrack for 2001. I’ve yammered on for so long now that the blight just spread to the planet’s last ear of corn. Sorry about that. Ironically, I’ve only scratched the surface of the myriad meanings contained within this multivalent yarn. Those who are successful at suspending their disbelief—by buying into the notion that humans have the wherewithal to actually venture out into the distant reaches of space—will affirm the movie as a journey well worth taking. Bottom line: Interstellar is a visual marvel and a masterwork of science fiction that will, if you’ll forgive the temporal pun, stand the test of time. Getting lost in space has never been more thrilling or terrifying.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (R)

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Directed by: Peter Chelsom
Starring: Simon Pegg
September 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Dogs don’t fly, Simon.
Don’t worry...the dog wasn’t hurt in the process of filming.

Two movies with Rosamund Pike in as many days.
As you can tell from my previous blog entry, I had just seen Gone Girl the night before watching this film.

“Cut the rope, Tintin.” Pegg goes off on a patient.
The Tintin reference reveals Hector’s status as a grown-up boy (a psychic patient of Hector’s actually sees him as a boy), but also prefigures his globetrotting adventures later in the movie.

Bumped up to business class. Down or memory foam?
I was bumped up to first class once on a very long flight overseas. There’s really nothing like it.

The mirror image inkblot for #4 is humorous.
This definitely reveals the id of the male gender. It’s the classic “Why have one when you can have two?” mentality.

Hector looses the scent of happiness atop a serene mountain.
Other than the arctic air, I definitely think I could be happy there for a while…jaw-dropping vistas.

#8 is vital...answer your calling.
Fulfillment is all about finding purpose in life. Actually, the quote at the top of The Equalizer (see my review) ties in rather nicely with this sentiment.

Must admit, I’ve never been successful at implementing #13.
I derive fun from watching movies and very short list of other activities. I know…I need to make an appointment to see Hector stat.

“Listening is loving.” A powerful principle and an emotionally impactful scene.
The sequence on the plane is the heart of the film, and is also the answer to the perplexing question Hector has pursued throughout the movie.

“Mothering with an S.” Ha!

“Emotionally squeamish.” Ouch!
Those who know us best can hurt us the most.

Final analysis: a journey of personal discovery marked by humorous and meaningful moments.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Not the comedy portrayed in the trailer but a feel-good flick.

Bored with the sameness of life, Hector (Pegg) embarks on a globetrotting journey to find that most elusive of emotions…Ah-penis (easily the funniest scene in the movie). As a respected psychiatrist dating a fetching woman (Rosamund Pike), Hector really has it all…and yet, his life is devoid of the titular element. Those who don’t have an attractive partner or a high paying job may find it hard to sympathize with Hector’s ennui, while others in a similar stage/station of life will readily identify with his plight. In many respects, Hector follows the same general trajectory and itinerary that Julia Roberts’ character did in Eat Pray Love (2010). This movie also mirrors last year’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which starred Ben Stiller. Mitty and Hector both feature characters mired in the doldrums of existence and in desperate need of relief from the daily routine. Both men are entering middle age, both keep fairly rigid schedules and both find fulfillment and inspiration only after leaving their familiar surroundings and embarking on a transcontinental adventure. In Mitty, the goal is to find a missing photograph, while this movie’s objective is the apprehension of happiness. The end result of both movies is that the central male characters discover who they really are by escaping from their lives for a short season. If that premise sounds somewhat familiar, and formulaic, it is. Unfortunately, this film adds insult to injury with its predictable plot (the narrative has little character complexity and is told in a straightforward manner) and contrived subplots (Hector does a favor for a tyrant, played by Jean Reno, which pays off dividends later in the film, and the utterly inane brain mapping storyline that even Christopher Plummer’s fine cameo can’t salvage). The biggest drawback here is that the movie was billed as a comedy and is sure to disappoint those jonesing for a light-hearted romp with resident funny-man Pegg. That’s not to say the film doesn’t try its hand at levity; the above double entendre stands out as a chief example. However, Hector, who we’re supposed to take seriously, is portrayed as a klutz, bumping into and breaking everything that isn’t nailed down in feats of physical comedy that would make The Three Stooges envious. After the third or fourth occurrence, however, these pratfalls just aren’t funny anymore. This film is amusing and heartwarming, but not necessarily exciting. In the end, Hector finds happiness in the film, but will the audience?

Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt
August 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Guardians of the Galaxy
It’s called sarcasm, people.

Star Lord uses a rat microphone while jamming to his “Awesome Mix” on muddy Morag.
Maybe it’s just me, but even if I were a Star Lord, I still wouldn’t be handling a rat.

The group hug weapon is highly effective.
A different kind of group hug was used with great success by another band of misfit heroes in Mystery Men (1999).

Groot drinks his fill of fountain water.
Probably a lot cleaner than what he absorbs through his roots.

“Exclusively in that order.” Ha!

Boy, Groot really knows how to pick a nose.

“Asleep for the danger, awake for the money as usual.” Hilarious!
This statement is akin to Han’s deadpan criticism in Return of the Jedi, “Great, Chewie! Great! Always thinking with your stomach.” Correction: “Asleep for the action and awake for the money, as usual.”

Rocket was kidding about the mechanical leg. I haven’t laughed this hard in a movie in a long time.
This gag is the equivalent to the long con in a heist movie. The joke is set up well in advance of the punch line, which lands when least expected. What a payoff!

From warrior to imbecile in less than fifteen seconds.

The Ranger Rick reference is priceless.
I wonder what percentage of the audience even got this gag? Google it!

“Pelvic sorcery.” The jokes just keep coming.

Quill’s “losers” speech is moving if not necessarily motivational.
A nice spin on the word in question that trades on commonality to build solidarity among the group.

The ship net is a cool concept.
Until one part of the net is breached. That’s why Rom’s idea for self-replicating mines in DS9 was so ingenious.

Groot takes out an entire platoon of enemy soldiers with one branch and then grins. Classic!
This scene is similar to Kit Fisto’s smile directly at the camera in Star Wars: Episode II.

Quill gets a second chance to take his mom’s hand.
A touching scene that resolves the nagging guilt Quill’s experienced ever since he was a boy.

Final analysis: unquestionably the funniest superhero movie ever, and also one of the most original.
After watching the trailer, I knew this was going to be a humorous movie, but it’s far, far funnier than I originally anticipated. There were moments when I was literally bellowing and paid no mind to how such loud laughter would affect those around me. Of course, they were laughing just as loud, so no harm no foul.

A little overstuffed, but an effective blend of humor and action.
By overstuffed I mean the Dune-esque epic nature of the story that sees the characters hopping from one planet to the next and encountering myriad alien species along the way, all of them bent on obtaining the movie’s mysterious artifact. As someone who’s never read the comic book, it was a bit of a challenge keeping up with the who’s who element of the story.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Let’s see what becomes of Groot’s root in the sequel.

While many sci-fi movies contain comedic elements, the genre label “sci-fi/comedy” can be attributed to very few films. Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) certainly qualifies, as does Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987) along with the book-to-big screen The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Often, movies that try too hard to meld comedy into a sci-fi universe end up resulting in a goof-fest like The Ice Pirates (1984). So then, Guardians negotiates some difficult terrain as a sci-fi, superhero, action/adventure and comedy hybrid. Somehow, like a skilled juggler, the film manages to keep all of these balls in the air at the same time, which is fitting since the movie’s MacGuffin, a high-tech orb, is also up in the air (and up for grabs) for much of the movie. Whereas humor and action effectively hold the audience’s attention throughout, the relationships between the motley characters is the glue that holds the whole proceedings together. Chris Pratt imbues Peter Quill/Star Lord with irresistible charm and Zoe Saldana brings a disarming vulnerability to the chip-on-the-shoulder assassin Gamora. Dave Bautista is Drax, the laconic beefcake, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is the good-natured tree creature and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is the wisecracking raccoon. Each member of the team receives ample onscreen time, but character development is pretty thin except for Star Lord’s opening back story. The sacrifices made by Star Lord and Groot are genuinely touching—these character moments help to ground the more farcical and whimsical elements of the story. The formula here (distilled from many genre sources ranging from Star Wars to X-Men) seems to be a winning one, so a sequel seems all but assured at this point. Let’s just hope that future films in the franchise retain this movie’s lighter tone. So, until the sequel arrives, grab your walkman and jam out to your own awesome mix (punting rats is optional).

Rio 2 (G)

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Directed by: Carlos Saldanha
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg
April 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Rio 2

Nice tropical sounds added to the 20th Century Fox fanfare.
The percussive rhythms of Carnival.

A blue feather is found in the Amazon.
Right next to the nest of raptor eggs.

Nice tour of Brazil in a storybook montage.
The bird’s-eye vantages of the major cities really help to capture the flavor of this diverse country.

Kristin Chenoweth voices the poisonous frog. Call it a significant career change.
Just further proof that there isn’t anything she can’t do in the biz.

The blue community’s celebration song is brilliantly animated and choreographed.
A visual treat that recalls other such elaborately produced numbers in the first film.

The jungle talent auditions are hilarious.
The male black panther singing high soprano is particularly humorous.

Blue insults the Red leader. This means war.
Insulted Red Leader? Who does he think he is, Luke Skywalker? Correction: Blu.

Fanny Pack single-wingdedly looses the war.

Final analysis: a respectable sequel with some new characters and challenges thrown into the mix.
While some original characters, like George Lopez’ Rafael, are sidelined for much of the movie.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. So will the sequel be called Rio 3 or Amazon 2? I’m so confused.

Such confusion stems from the fact that the majority of the film takes place in the Amazon—only about the first fifteen minutes of the story transpires in the birds’ native haunts in Rio. Whereas it was the right decision to move some of the action away from the familiar settings established in the first film, the sequel spends too much time away from the titular city and should’ve returned there if only for a closing number to provide an adequate bookend for the film. Indeed, one of the subplots (the proposed talent show) would’ve been a natural, logical way to close out the film…but that plot thread is left dangling in the tropical breeze. The familial aspects work really well here, but the writers work overtime at turning Blu into an avian version of Ben Stiller’s character in the Meet the Parents movies. Seeing the blue bird bumble and stumble through every situation grows tedious after a while and the way his one heroic act at the end rectifies all the damage he’s done all movie long is extremely contrived. And speaking of Blu’s defining moment of valor, does anyone else see the connective tissue between clumsy Jar-Jar leading the Gungan attack against the Battle Droid army in Star Wars-Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Blu leading the charge against the humans and their bulldozers here? This heavy-handed means of vilifying humans is old hat. Though conducted on a much smaller scale, this nature-revolts-against-humans finale is virtually identical to the one in FernGully…The Last Rainforest (1992). Whereas I’m certainly not a supporter of deforestation or any other means by which humanity destroys nature, I’m even less sanguine when Hollywood indoctrinates impressionable minds with its diatribes of evil humans and their careless stewardship over the planet (see my review of “Happy Feet” for a rant on the subject). This “humans bad, nature good” final conflict was the only sour note in an otherwise mellifluous animated romp in the jungle. So the question remains: how much of Rio will we get to see in Rio 3?

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG)

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Directed by: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel
June 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dragon race has a literal black sheep.
Doesn’t this competition remind you of a Quidditch match, only with dragons subbing in for brooms?

Free falling sequence is breathtaking.

A new page for the map, an encounter with some unsavory trappers and rumors of war.
Oh my!

“Men who kill without reason cannot be reasoned with.”
A tad platitudinous, but essentially true.

Dragon aviary is a spectacular visual.
The swarm of dragons, comprised of a myriad shapes, sizes and colors, is easily the visual highlight of the film.

Dragon traps...clever.

The alphas lock tusks...the battle of the leviathans.
Doesn’t this scene look like it belongs in Pacific Rim or a Godzilla movie, though?

Toothless flies blind. A matter of trust.
This sequence presents a nitpick, however. Is the Alpha’s mind control only effective when visual contact is established? The eye gate should be irrelevant if the Alpha is engaging in true mind control and not just some hypnotic suggestion. Too technical for a kids movie? Probably.

A new alpha and a new chief. And they all lived...

Final analysis: a logical extension of the first film with many new dragons and a new villain.
And some truly dynamic family moments that serve as the heart of the film. However, the sudden entrance of one family member and the rapid departure of another are extremely contrived narrative choices.

However, the premise takes too long to materialize and the story lacks the magic of the original.
The teen angst angle worked like a charm in the first film, but Hiccup has finally come into his own here, making him a far less compelling character in this movie.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Don’t be surprised if Toothless finds a mate in the sequel. Too obvious.

As sequels go this certainly isn’t a jeer-worthy entertainment, and yet it fails to measure up to the first film in several key areas. First of all, the writers expect us to remember all of the characters despite that fact that the original film was released four years ago. Except for the kids in the audience, who’ve seen the first film dozens of times on Blu-ray at home, a refresher as to who’s who would’ve been nice for the rest of us one-timers. The main thing I missed in the sequel is the lore and mythology that enriched the first film. The writers, mistakenly, assume that we’re all experts on Viking customs and have the dragon bestiary memorized by now, but some new cultural tidbits to draw us into the milieu would’ve further enhanced this film. Also, a large part of the fun in the first film involved the training sessions for how to fight and ride various types of dragons. Everyone’s a proficient “pilot” in this movie, and only the bumpy flight on the dragon babies adds any kind of drama to the lives of these experienced dragon riders. Lest we forget, the word “train” appears in the title, so the movie missed the mark by failing to tap into what worked in the first film. Though the CG animation is top shelf, some of the melees are staged and choreographed just like a LOTR film—the epic battle formula is getting old by now. All in all, this is a spirited animated adventure that’s sure to thrill its target audience…if only the adults were equally serviced by this sophomore, and sometimes sophomoric, effort. Final thought: now that the main character has become a man and taken his father’s mantle, can we get a name change already? One thing that should never be uttered in the next movie is Chief Hiccup.

The Lego Movie (PG)

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Directed by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Starring: Will Arnett
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Lego Movie
Everything is already done for you…which some would say is the downfall of movies.

LOTR style opening. A wizard recounts a prophecy...in rhyme.

Everything is awesome...until Emmett tries following a woman into a construction site.
Many men have rushed headlong into destruction while pursuing a woman, so it’s not just a Lego thing. Correction: Emmet.

Wild Style and The Special land in the Old West.
Nope, there’s no time for them to say howdy to Rango. Correction: Wyldstyle.

The meeting of master builders is attended by many familiar figures, including the wizard Double Door.
A really funny play on words. The assembly is chockfull of familiar faces from many different franchises.

The double-decker couch actually serves a purpose.

Batman hitches a ride on the Millennium Falcon. Funny scene.
In what other movie can you find such a scene? The “They’re all guys” bit is a hoot.

The Bat pun is humorous.
The deadpan delivery by Will Arnett, who actually does a respectable job of voicing the Caped Crusader, is absolutely perfect.

Will Farrell meets his alter ego. Results in a touching scene.

Final analysis: some funny moments along with the pedestrian ones. A nice emotional payoff at the end.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not hard to see this becoming a franchise with the myriad sets to choose from.

The animated films that tend to endure are those that work on two levels: cute and funny for the kids, witty and emotionally complex for adults. Pixar has long been the exemplar for how to simultaneously cater to kids and adults in the same movie, but other animation studios have gradually found their own way in achieving this multidimensional storytelling method. The Lego Movie does an excellent job of servicing the different generations in the audience with whip smart humor and pulse-pounding action sequences. Many of the “adult” jokes, some of which contain biting political commentary, will fly right over the heads of younger viewers. That’s okay, because there’s plenty for the youngsters to enjoy here, not the least of which is seeing many of their favorite heroes hanging out together on the big screen. Characters from the Batman, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises all peacefully coexist in this mash-up mayhem, but a pair of original characters, Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), drive the story’s action. And then there’s schizoid Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), who steals the show with his mercurial moods and vacillating voices. The voice cast is beyond stellar, including Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Cobie Smulders, to name just a few. It’s an added treat to hear actors voicing their original characters like Billy Dee Williams as Lando and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. The final ten minutes close out the movie with a heartwarming resolution, which, for this adult, tied things up with satisfactory emotional closure. There are myriad creative avenues for the writers to explore in the inevitable sequel. We’ll just have to wait and see what new adventure they come up with…or, if we don’t want to wait that long, we can create our own sequel with the Legos we have hidden in the shoebox in the corner of the closet. I won’t tell if you won’t.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (PG-13)

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Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Patrick Stewart
May 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

X-Men-Days of Future Past

Bleak dystopian intro presents a desolate landscape akin to the one in the #Terminator films.
The only thing missing is the metallic men with laser weapons.

Intense opening battle. Wouldn’t want to run into one of the Sentinels in a dark alley.
Speaking of metallic assailants, the Sentinels are truly fear-inspiring, not only in how they appear and move, but in their ability to assimilate mutant abilities. Are we witnessing the birth of the Borg?

Wolvie is transported back to 1973. Is transported through a lava lamp and wakes up on a waterbed.
Groovy!

School’s out, the professor’s sauced and a big, bad, blue wolf is on the loose.

That’s the mother of all JFK conspiracy theories.

“It’s cool, but it’s disgusting.” True, bone claws aren’t nearly as sleek as metal ones.

Whip...lash! Cool visual.

Quicksilver’s run around the room is reminiscent of the Hammy’s sprint in #OverTheHedge.
Although this sort of thing has been done before, especially with the alacritous red clad lad from the DC stable of heroes, this is the most creative and exciting sequence in the entire movie. However, I can see why director Bryan Singer chose to sit this mutant on a couch during the final climactic sequence: Quicksilver’s special ability would’ve swiftly undone every villainous act committed by Magneto and would’ve robbed Mystique’s fateful decision of any urgency and dramatic value.

“Looks can be deceiving.” Truer words have never been spoken...by Mystique.

Beast Hulks out and Logan is stricken by amnesia.

Trask wants Mystique for “research purposes.” Sure!

Charles mindmelds with Logan. The finger placement is a little off.
Correction: mind-meld. I should know better. Speaking of…

Nice ST:TOS episode clip from “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” Another time travel story.
It always pains me to admit when I’m incorrect on this particular subject, but the episode in question is “The Naked Time,” which I originally surmised and then second-guessed myself on. Both episodes use the shipboard chronometer located to the right of Sulu’s station, and I selected “Yesterday” because the Enterprise returns to Earth circa 1969, in a similar manner to Wolverine returning to 1973 in this movie. Based on that plot similarity, “Yesterday” actually would’ve made a stronger allusion since the ship merely skips back in time three days (seventy-one hours to be precise) in “Naked.” In my defense, there’s very little to go off of in these clips (a planet would’ve given it away in two seconds flat) and some segments seem to have been repeated. Apology and apologetics aside, it’s quite ingenious how Singer wove this ancillary, yet pertinent, tidbit into the tapestry of the film. Mise-en-scene at its finest.

Charles uses a Jedi mind trick to get through security.
Just figured I’d provide equal opportunity to the other major sci-fi universe.

Magneto turns a stadium into a mother ship.
This is the only story element in the movie that seems contrived to me. Since Magneto can pull metal from anywhere to create a barricade, absconding with an entire stadium seems a bit excessive. It’s a giant set piece that seems more appropriate for an old style Batman movie, and just seems unnecessary for the story at hand.

Wolvie attacked by rebar snakes.
A very visceral visual.

Logan wakes up to the Golden Oldies. There and back again.

Even Cyclops wears #Oakley shades.
Other than the gray in Halle Berry’s hair, it’s remarkable how little this cast has aged since their first film together back in 2000.

Final analysis: a decent time travel yarn without too many cheesy comic book clichés.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Next up in the Marvel-verse: #GuardiansOfTheGalaxy.

Mixing older and younger versions of the same characters in one movie is an exciting premise, but also a risky one. Part of the movie’s appeal is seeing older and younger selves interact with each other, as in the case of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy). The constant threat of the Sentinels, the bracing time travel story line and the novelty of the 70s trappings all make for a unique comic-to-cinema tale. Featuring fan favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as the focal point and linchpin of the plot was a wise choice—this is Jackman’s seventh appearance as Wolvie. Perhaps it has something to do with her Oscar, but Jennifer Lawrence, aka Raven/Mystique, has been given more to do in this movie than in the previous one…I don’t know many teenage boys who are disappointed by that fact. Peter Dinklage is terrific as Trask, an opportunist who misguidedly thinks he’s furnishing the world with the security it desperately needs. If the movie has a weak link, it’s a story that’s so preoccupied with the impending extinction of mutantkind that it’s really a rather joyless affair. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) adds some levity during his five minutes of screen time, but the balance of the movie is an earnest, glum exercise in entropy. The movie is thought provoking at times, pulse pounding at others, but is it truly enjoyable? In the end, it’s just nice seeing all of our old and new friends together in one film, although some are little more than set dressing. So how does this latest film measure up to earlier efforts? It’s the best X-Men film since X2 (2003). However, for the next sequel I recommend lightening it up a bit. Since Jackman and Marsden can sing, how about a few musical numbers? X-Men: The Musical. Stick a pin in it.

Frozen (PG)

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Directed by: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Starring: Kristen Bell
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Frozen

Love the part writing on the opening choral number.

Gorgeous animation on the ice breaking scene.
This sequence harkens back to diminutive laborers swinging pickaxes in a diamond mine in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)…but without all the “Heigh-Hos.”

The king seeks aid from rolling rocks.
There’s a really good rock ‘n’ roll joke in there somewhere, but chances are it’ll end in a groan. And neither of us wants that.

“Do you want to build a snowman?” Wow, what an emotionally charged back story.
This heart-rending sequence approaches the master level storytelling exhibited in the opening montage of Up (2009). Boy does it hit the mark.

Water fountain ice sculpture and walk across the lake are brilliant.
There’s some superb animation in this section of the film.

My God, the “frozen fractals” CGI is utterly jaw-dropping.
Ditto to the previous remark times a million.

Olaf dreams of summer. Funny how we always long for what we can never have or will lead to our destruction.
Just human, or snowman, nature I suppose.

The duet by the sisters reminds me of the “Defying Gravity” song in Wicked.
Fitting since one of the singers in that song also lends her voice here, Idina Menzel.

Ice queen gives her sister a snow lock like Simon in #TheDragonboneChair.
This book, the first in a trilogy written by Tad Williams, should be essential reading for fantasy lovers.

“My own personal flurry.” Hilarious!
Unlike many of the cutesy sidekicks in the 90s and 00s Disney movies, Olaf doesn’t work too hard to be funny…he just is. He’s also charming, which is more than I can say for many of the “comic relief” characters from the period in question.

Final analysis: a beautifully rendered animated film that features some funny and touching moments.

This film is the perfect marriage between classical Disney magic and Pixar’s storytelling brilliance.
If Disney wants to regain its dominance in the industry, this film should serve as a template.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Pure animation excellence and well deserving of its Oscars.

Of course, it’s easy to gush in retrospect, but this film certainly deserved the Oscars it won back in March, including the coveted Best Animated Feature Film. Thanks in large part to the creative guidance of John Lasseter, the gap between Disney and Pixar animated films has significantly narrowed. More homogeneity exists between both animation houses at present than ever before and it just makes sense that Disney/Pixar films should possess the same level of quality and creative consistency across the brand…the results have been largely lopsided until now. Besides the eye-popping CGI, there are also plenty of other things to celebrate in the film, not the least of which is co-director Jennifer Lee’s screenplay based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” There are many classical Disney flourishes in the film along with some fresh elements too, like the clever twist on the hackneyed story device where a character can only be reanimated by “true love’s kiss.” The movie boasts the finest musical numbers in any Disney movie since Beauty and the Beast (1991). There isn’t a wasted word or note in any of the songs and “Let It Go,” performed by Menzel, justly deserved the Oscar win for Best Original Song. As incredulous as it seems, this is the first Best Animated Film Oscar bestowed upon the Mouse House: since its inception in 2002, the category has been dominated by Pixar. In truth, I’m much more of a Pixar fan than a Disney fan, but I must admit to being completely won over by the film’s charm, heart and visual grandeur. There can be no doubt that Frozen is a giant step in the right direction for Disney. Hopefully, like iron sharpening iron, the two studios will push each other to greater artistic and dramatic achievements in the future. A little sibling (studio) rivalry never hurt anything, right?

Muppets Most Wanted (PG)

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Directed by: James Bobin
Starring: Ricky Gervais
March 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Muppets Most Wanted
Guess I should show more respect for the little green guy. After all, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I know ‘cause I’ve seen it.

Really amusing
Monsters University short.

Clever opening number about sequels. Did anyone catch
The Seventh Seal reference?
One of the lines suggests that this is the seventh film since the original movie. My higher math tells me that there are now eight films in the Muppets series. Certainly a respectable franchise, although it has a long way to go to catch up to James Bond.

Badguy proposes a world tour. What could possibly go wrong?

“Drum solo!” Animal is a crackup.
Don’t worry; he eventually gets his solo…which lasts two hours. Thank God for editing.

Christophe Waltz dances the waltz. Doesn’t get any more tongue-in-cheek than that.
Correction: No “e” in Christoph.

Kermit receives a spork crown at the gulag.
Some people wait their whole lives for such an honor.

Liotta and Trejo doing dance moves is a bigger gas than Chris Cooper doing rap in the last film.

Kermit must direct a prison review or be stuck to “the wall.”

The prison ballet scene is just plain wrong.

These Cabbage Patch Muppets are creepy looking.
They look like Chucky’s illegitimate children.

Piggy sees double at her wedding.
The doppelgänger subplot is older than dirt, but keeps finding its way into movies.

Final analysis: just what you’d expect from a
Muppets movie...lots of gags, pratfalls and inside jokes.
With puns and one-liners to spare.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not as heartfelt as the previous film, but just as entertaining.

The previous film in the series, The Muppets (2011), was a valentine to the fans and franchise. The movie was delivered with undeniable reverence and passion by co-star/co-writer Jason Segel (TVs How I Met Your Mother), who is a lifelong Muppet lover. The new Muppet introduced in that movie, Walter, was clearly envisioned as a Muppet version of Segel’s younger fan boy self. Though Walter also appears in this film, his involvement is in more of an ancillary capacity. Even though it’s just as amusing, this movie isn’t as from-the-heart as its predecessor. But that isn’t to say it’s without entertainment value. Fey, Gervais, Ty Burrell and a slew of high caliber performers in cameos infuse the movie with sufficient star power and the laughs keep coming at a steady clip throughout the movie. The Spartacus inspired scene near the end of the movie, where all of the Muppets offer themselves up for imprisonment so that they won’t be separated from Kermit, is definitely an emotional high point. All in all, this movie is diverting, family friendly fare that should fill the bill if this is the kind of entertainment you’re in the mood for. In the end, Muppets Most Wanted is exactly what you’d expect it to be. And in this instance, that’s not such a bad thing.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (PG-13)

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Directed by: Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield
May 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Spider-Man 2

The struggle to upload Roosevelt is quite intense and features a new slice of back story.
However, this opening feels like a teaser on a TV show like The Blacklist rather than an introductory sequence for a blockbuster.

Spidey carries a cellphone? Don’t recall seeing a pocket anywhere on his suit.
Correction: Cell phone. Strangely, Twitter didn’t underline it in red so I went with it. Guess I should’ve trusted that tingling feeling on the back of my neck instead.

Spidey’s dialog here is campy like in the comics...not sure it translates as well to the big screen.
The first fifteen minutes, in particular, are brimming with cheesy one-liners which engender more eye rolls than chuckles. Sure, Tobey Maguire’s Spidey got off his fair share of witty remarks and puns, but there was something charming about his delivery that’s absent from Garfield’s daffy deluge of doltish comments. Enough blathering on the subject, though, lest I become guilty of delivering the same kind of remedial retorts I accuse the wall-crawler of employing here.

Foxx has a Spidey psychosis.
I’m speaking of Foxx’ character, of course, Max…also known as the villain Eelman.

“Change isn’t a slogan.” Hmm. Must exclude campaigns.
I so want to get up on a soap box here, but I shall refrain.

Sparkles is this movie’s version of Syndrome.

Foxx zaps people with force lightning. He does kinda’ look like the Emperor.

How to distract four thugs with a coffee mug.
Pouring coffee on one of them is always a good start, but how clichéd is this?

Aunt Mae discovers Peter’s web of photos.
Correction: Aunt May. Guess you can tell that I don’t read the comics.

In the Special Projects lab. Did anyone else see the mechanical appendages? Sequel teaser?

Gorgeous scene atop the bridge.
Actually, this is the only scene in the entire movie where I felt Webb took a moment to create some art. Everything else is just crashing, smashing and teen angst.

Peter is a science geek. Why wouldn’t he think of the magnetism solution?

Cop car license plate is 1701.
Star Trek fans will understand the inside gag.

Gwen literally sees time pass her by.

A fist bump for tiny Spidey. Cool scene.
Though the David and Goliath scenario added to the scene’s intensity, the Rhino would have to be a real sicko to take out a little kid, so the tension doesn’t reach the apex it was intended to.

Final analysis: the story, which is a loose association of subplots, takes forever to coalesce.
In fact, I’m not sure there really is a through line here except, perhaps, for Peter’s promise to Gwen’s departed dad, and even that story thread is so intermittent it’s more of a subplot.

Everything seems off here: strange performances, insipid dialog & a weak plot are major debits here.
I’d have to go back and watch the movie again to pinpoint such occurrences, but some of the acting choices and facial expressions in the film really left me scratching my head.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A downturn from the first film. Pining for Maguire’s Parker about now.

I would say I’m disappointed by this second Webb Spidey movie, but my expectations were so low after watching the first film that I gave this sequel wider latitude to fail…and it did. Miserably. Granted, the sequel makes a genuine attempt at providing some back story for Peter and Harry Osborn’s (Dane DeHaan) fathers, the fate of Peter’s parents and some additional insights into the life of departed Uncle Ben, but these scenes are just flour and water paste designed to hold the series of action sequences together, which, of course, is asking far too much of dramatic filler. While failing to connect emotionally, these back story elements also contain flaws in logic like that fact that only the Parker bloodline can successfully assimilate the mutant spider venom…one family among the seven billion people inhabiting our world? I’ve heard of designer viruses, but sheesh. This contrivance to produce friction between Peter and Harry, who wants a dose of Spider-Man’s blood to smooth out the blemishes on his neck (can’t Harry afford some plastic surgery?) is utterly daft, and indeed, the Goblin’s presence in the movie is completely superfluous and should’ve been saved for the sequel. Despite repeated attempts at keeping Gwen out of harm’s way, our hero, ultimately, isn’t equal to the task of protecting her. Is that his fault though? In my book Gwen asked for it by failing to heed Spidey’s many warnings and by foolishly circumventing the extreme measures taken to ensure her safety (which include webbing her hand to a car). Maybe it’s just me, but if Spider-Man told me to stay away from a particular building, I’d be three states away. So then, is Gwen’s insistence on remaining in the line of fire a death wish or just plain ignorance? Then, near the end of the film, the wall-crawler tasks Gwen with pushing a button once he gives her the signal (a virtually identical scenario to the one played out by Tony and Pepper at the end of the first Iron Man film). There’s one small problem, however; Spidey and the villain are engaged in a berserker style battle that’s destroying a good portion of the power plant. So the question is, how can Gwen re-start the power grid if the apparatus supporting it has been blasted to smithereens? I could go on nitpicking this film until the next, inevitable, sequel premiers, but I think the point has been made by now. Webb’s Spider-Man films are shaping up to be a drab, joyless, reheated version of Sam Raimi’s trilogy. Will they have any staying power or, like Lucas’ prequel trilogy, will Webb’s films simply fail to stick?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (PG-13)

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Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans
April 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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“On your left.” Ha!
That kind of speed, and endurance, would definitely come in handy at times.

Triskelion equals S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Also a planet in the original
Star Trek.
“The Gamesters of Triskelion” is the title. A largely forgettable second season show save for Angelique Pettyjohn’s tinfoil bikini.

Capt. America argues with Fury over freedom vs. fear.
This is a very incisive, and topical, discussion…a rarity among superhero movies.

The Sundance Kid moderates the Jedi council.
I kept looking for Yoda among the holograms.

Fury’s SUV gets a police sandwich.
I want to know the make and model of Fury’s vehicle, because it sure takes a pounding…yet keeps tearing down the street.

The elevator’s getting a little full.

A honeymoon in...New Jersey?
Hopefully not Bayonne.

First kiss since 1945?

The Winter Soldier’s rifle really packs a punch.
One of the coolest visuals in the movie.

“I am so fired!” Stan Lee sighting.
His brief cameos just keep getting better with each successive Marvel movie. Eat your heart out, Hitchcock.

“Captain’s orders.” Let the civil war begin.

Final analysis: a surprisingly airtight plot...

...that doesn’t allow the action scenes to run away with the movie.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Next up: “Bucky’s Revenge.”

A marked improvement over the first film, The Winter Soldier features a taut plot, a rather ingenious conspiracy and a terribly mysterious antagonist, who, much more than a mere caricature of a villain, actually strikes fear into the heart…there are several moments when it looks like our hero might be defeated by the shrouded assailant. However, when the villain’s secret identity is finally revealed, it’s a bit of a letdown...comic junkies (who know far more about the character’s back story than I do) will have a different opinion, I’m sure. The movie is salient in the way it wrestles with the realities of the postmodern world, such as: corporate corruption, terrorism and rampant surveillance. This film is more down-to-earth than most of the other superhero movies released over the past decade, but it looses its artistic edge by trying to be too realistic. A main contributor to this is the utter lack of anything “super” in the movie. Most of the technology on display in the film isn’t that much more advanced than what governmental agencies use today. Also, and more significantly, the entire film takes place in D.C.—no globetrotting, no exotic locales and no extraterrestrial environments in this movie. Some would argue that the everyday nature of the story is what makes it compelling, and I can’t argue with that. However, the look and feel of the movie is essentially an episode of Heroes with a blockbuster budget. Despite the solid story and serviceable performances, there isn’t much to marvel at here.

Noah (PG-13)

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Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe
March 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Crowe and Connelly also portrayed a married couple in A Beautiful Mind (2001).

Not too worried about spoiling plot points for this one.

The intro is eye opening...never heard of the Watchers.

Noah is quite the humanitarian...looks out for white flowers and dragon dogs.
Just a guess, but his skill at taking care of animals might come in handy someday.

Noah encounters a Watcher. I wonder if it has any vulnerable spots?

Noah sings a lullaby. Guess Crowe didn’t want those singing lessons he took for
Les Miserables to go to waste.
Not that they did much good, mind you. It’s a good thing all of the canines are sedated on the ark. Otherwise, the howling over Crowe’s singing would make our ears bleed.

A cup of tea with Methuselah. I hope the tea leaves aren’t as old as he is.
Yeah, yeah. My jokes are as stale as the tea.

Amazing time lapse montage.
But it’s used once again during story time with Noah. This occurrence should’ve been skipped in favor of the latter usage of the technique, which has more dramatic impact.

Watchers remind me of
LOTRs Ents...right down to the lumbering gait and booming, gravelly voice.

You knew they’d be coming sometime...all manner of reptiles board the ark. Why did it have to be snakes?

Question: Wouldn’t the sedation incense also effect the humans?
Correction: affect. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

“The time for mercy is past.” Fortunately God didn’t feel the same way.

Total
LOTR battle to repel the advancing throng.
The 5.1 quake hit right in the middle of this sequence…just added to the overall effect. Who needs IMAX?

Noah’s creation story is brilliantly visualized.
But looses its visual vitality due to the movie’s earlier instance of time lapse photography.

Final analysis: a beautifully crafted film, but a very strange take on the flood narrative.

The film fails as a faithful Biblical account but works extremely well as a fantasy epic.

Noah, a venerated man of faith, is characterized here as a misguided, manic Ahab.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4. Had higher hopes for this one. Can theological accuracy and art coexist? Remains to be seen.

Yes, the beginning of the film contains a warning that artistic license was taken with Aronofsky’s stylized rendition of the Biblical account of the global flood as told in the book of Genesis. Despite the disclaimer, does that give Aronofsky the right to forge the Biblical narrative into anything his fertile imagination conceives (I mean, introducing aliens into a film about Napoleon might seem less odd and would certainly be less controversial)? As if to remove all doubt as to how far the director will stray from the inspired source material, within minutes we’re introduced to the Watchers, which, presumably, are a variation of the Nephilim but with the potential to achieve eternal redemption (except for the one that cracks open its chest because that’s suicide, right?). With the Watchers, Aronofsky sets the tone and expectations for the film right out of the gate. You’ll either accept his fanciful riff on the story of Noah or you’ll outright reject the whole affair as high art heresy. Theological accuracy aside, the story starts floundering once the rain starts falling. Besides a needlessly protracted battle, filmed with all the visual verve of a LOTR movie, the subplot involving Ray Winstone’s devious antagonist is utterly daft. Those who’ve heard the Sunday school story will know that Noah and his family survive the deluge, so the outcome of the fight scene is a foregone conclusion. Consider this a failed attempt at generating dramatic intensity. As for the characterization of Noah as a type of tragic and tortured Ahab, there’s really no justification for it other than the fact that Aronofsky needed something to sustain viewer interest during the 40 days/nights part of the tale. There’s no doubt that Crowe pulls off the neurotic Noah but could conflict have been generated some other way so that the hero of our story stays somewhere this side of sane? Despite the many ways Aronofsky tampers with the original Biblical account, his biggest disservice to the film is his narrative choices, which consistently sideline God during key moments of the story. For instance, in our human minds it seems impossible that Noah and his family could’ve built the ark by themselves, so Aronofsky introduces the Watchers to make the task seem more feasible, effectively eliminating any supernatural agency from the equation. Also, from a man-centric perspective, it doesn’t seem probable that Noah and his family can feed and tend to all of the animals in the world for 40 full days, so Aronofsky devises a way to sedate the animals. If God could shut the mouths of hungry lions to preserve Daniel’s life, couldn’t God put all of the animals on the ark into a state of hibernation? Explaining away divine activity also occurs in subtle ways in the film, like when Noah’s sons raise the main door to seal up the ark. In the Bible, it’s God himself who shuts the door (Gen. 7:16). These instances, along with many others, reveal that the movie’s underlying problem isn’t the creative liberties taken with the story but rather the removal of the hand of providence from appearing in the movie’s broad strokes. I’m okay with whimsical story elements like the Watchers—I wasn’t alive during Noah’s time, so I can’t deny their existence—but I’m not okay with the excision of a divine agency from the heart of the story or human explanations given for miraculous events. After all, if you erase God from the story it kind of defeats the purpose, right? Bible scholars aver that 99% truth is still heresy. The many liberties taken here evince a story that’s deserving of such ignominious status. I had hoped that this movie would finally be the perfect marriage of an artistic, commercial film with a story that’s faithful to the original text. Unfortunately, this movie isn’t the consummation of those desires. Now all I’m left with is the sinking feeling that this movie was a missed opportunity of biblical proportions.

Divergent (PG-13)

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Directed by: Neil Burger
Starring: Shailene Woodley
March 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Opening narration effectively sets up the particulars of this dystopian world.
It’s a CliffsNotes version in case you haven’t read the book.

Clever use of mirrors in the choosing ceremony. A nice embellishment to the book.
Director Neil Burger maximizes the mirror motif, which is a very keen choice since such reflective surfaces are considered the height of vanity by those belonging to the Abnegation nation.

Guess I’d be factionless in this world...I could never cut my hand with a knife.
Just watching others slice into their own flesh makes me faint. Can you tell I’d never hack it in Dauntless?

Who will be the first to jump into the black hole?

“What makes you think you can talk to me?” Snap!
Tris gets off a nice retort, though.

Mosh pit initiation is fitting for Dauntless.
Crowd surfing in a cafeteria seems wholly appropriate for this faction. Can’t see it happening at Hogwarts though.

First jumper versus last jumper to fight in the ring. Short bought.

Training tips from Four followed by a brutal cliffhanger.
Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard) was the perfect casting decision for Eric, the movie’s loathsome antagonist.

Neuro stim darts. Very cool. Let the games begin.

“Pull the break!” What a rush that would be.

Attack of the crows...didn’t we already see this in a Hitchcock movie?

Entering someone else’s fear landscape...double the terror.

Four shows off his tats during his tryst with Tris.
Does a scene get any more gratuitous than this? Still, we’ve gotta’ give all the teenage girls what they paid for, right?

Let the drone war begin.
Not clone war, because we’ve already had one of those in a galaxy far, far away.

“A beauty we can’t afford.” Socialism at its finest, folks.

Nice twist with Winslet. Different than the book. Clever resolution.

Final analysis: faithful to the book with minor additions/deletions.

A twist on
Brave New World and The Hunger Games, Divergent is a cautionary tale about a society gone wrong.
However well-intentioned the formation of the factions was, none of them (except for Amity because, by golly, they just don’t know any better) are currently operating within the parameters of their proposed purpose. Dauntless have become too brutal, Erudite too manipulative, Candor too honest and Abnegation too powerful. The original intention for the expressed function of each faction has been taken to an unhealthy extreme. Just goes to prove that no matter how altruistic a societal structure or governing system is when it’s established, people will always find a way to frack it up. Pardon my Galactican.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. A decent dystopian yarn with adequate action and suspense. Next up: Insurgent.

The similarly themed The Hunger Games series was the exception to the rule that says you can’t do a point by point narrative reconstruction when adapting a book to the big screen. Adhering to the written page served those movies extremely well, with kudos going to Suzanne Collins for the strength of her source material. Divergent, to its own detriment, is the rule rather than the exception. Though there are minor alterations between book and movie, and despite the fact that the book series was written readymade for a big screen trilogy, the book didn’t translate as well to the film in this instance. Perhaps it’s that too much screen time is spent on Dauntless training and testing (and that too much time is spent in Dauntless territory). Perhaps the military overthrow and subsequent containment of the coup seems far too sudden and too cause and effect in its treatment. Perhaps the deaths of Will, mom and dad all come too quickly in succession for believability and for maximum impact. I mean, at least Luke had appropriate breathers in between the deaths of his aunt and uncle, Ben and Biggs in Star Wars. Perhaps it all boils down to the tried and true adage that the book is always better than the movie. Whatever the reason, here’s hoping the sequel will do a better job of visualizing Roth’s words onscreen. As is, the movie is a diverting tween-centric, near future thrill ride. However, it could’ve been, like its hero, a unique force of nature.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG)

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Directed by: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller
December 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Walter’s wink is rejected. The joys of online dating.
And has product placement in a movie ever been as front and center as eHarmony is here?

Lots of
Ally McBeal like flights of fancy, one of which features a poetry falcon.

The last
LIFE, a missing photo and a meet cute.

Don’t touch Mitty’s Stretch Armstrong.
I punctured mine as a kid and got the green monster guy as a replacement. Those toys were supposed to be puncture proof…leave it to me.

Am I way off base here or should Mitty check the wallet for the missing negative?
Refer to Jeff Goldblum’s line in Jurassic Park after the T-Rex smashes through the fence.

The
Benjamin Button fantasy is humorous.

Mitty finds a thumb in Greenland.
Does that mean he has a green thumb?

Does Iceland really have a Papa John’s?
Another shameless, and dubious, product placement.

Searching for ghost cats in the Himalayas.
BTW, did Mitty ever submit a vacation request at work?

Mitty’s mom saves his wallet and his
LIFE.
Mom = Shirley MacLaine. Her “Oh, by the way…” meeting with Penn is contrived beyond belief.

Final analysis: a sweet film that appeals to the daydreamer in all of us.

This life-affirming film reminds us that we’re all extraordinary & that life is an adventure.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Directed by Stiller, the film is inspirational but predictable.

A feel good film based on James Thurber’s classic and the original 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye, the new Mitty is endearing and ennobling but is also exceedingly overly simplistic in the script department. There’s no character complexity and no narrative nuance here. Everything is buttoned up just as you’d expect it to be. Though painfully two-dimensional at times, Stiller’s Mitty is a revealing character study of a man trapped inside his own mental prison, however elaborate a prison it is. Mitty’s attempts at breaking out of self-imposed strictures, routines and modes of behavior is half the fun of the movie, and in our increasingly isolated society, I’m sure many audience members can identify with Stiller’s portrayal of a highly intelligent and creative individual who’s constrained by social inadequacies, whether real or imagined. The other half of what makes the movie fun is the globetrotting to Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas, all of which were filmed on location in Iceland. So if an uncomplicated, warm fuzzy fest is on today’s movie menu, order up the Mitty with a side of popcorn and you’ll be completely satisfied.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (PG-13)

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Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen
December 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Peter Jackson sighting before the first line of dialog.
The director, taking a cue from Hitchcock, has made cameos in each Middle-earth movie to date.

A “chance meeting” at Bree. A nice noir-ish setup.

Whitey meets with the necromancer at Dol Goldur. Not a pleasant portent.
Had a brain cramp in the theater…should’ve known how to spell Dol Guldur.

Don’t know that I’d chance Mirkwood without Gandalf.
In fact, I’m absolutely positive I wouldn’t.

Bilbo pulls a Pippin by plucking at a web.
Hobbits are nice folk, but they’re not exactly the sharpest swords in the armory are they?

Bilbo above the forest...one of my favorite scenes from the book. Beautifully realized.

Creepy spider scene isn’t nearly as skin-crawling as the bug scene in Jackson’s
King Kong.
Which is actually a good thing.

Imprisoned Dwarf yells “Bilbo” and everyone in the audience says shhhh. Now that’s funny!

Dwarves in Barrels. Sounds like a board game. It would make a heck of an amusement park ride though.

“This is not a nice place to meet.” Ha!
It’s all about Sylvester McCoy’s delivery here.

Lots of decapitations in this one. The twitching Orc is a bit much.
This type of twitching is probably the only thing orcs and chickens have in common.

Lake Town is brilliantly visualized.
This is actually an understatement. The design elements here, with a gelid river writhing through the quaint village and snow gently falling from the melancholy sky, have created one of the more immersive environments in all of Jackson’s Middle-earth; second, perhaps, only to Rivendell.

Random observation: Evangeline Lilly looks quite fetching with Vulcan ears.

“I have the only right.” Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Bard.

Arkenstone equals MacGuffin: Bilbo’s purpose is revealed.

Treasure under the mountain makes Scrooge McDuck’s vault look like a piggy bank.

Athelas. Remember that from the first
LOTR?
Need another hint? Kingsfoil.

Nice walnut pillow. I guess the people in Lake Town really are poor.

Legolas is like a Jedi in this one.
But are his powers here a little too unrealistic? I mean, he’s more formidable here than in the LOTR films…and he’s not even supposed to be here since Legolas doesn’t appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Final analysis: A weaker ending but a better overall effort than the paint-by-numbers first film.
By weaker ending I mean the creation and cohesion of the giant golden image of the dwarf king. Contrived and improbable.

Some creative departures from the book here, but most of them work just fine.

Rating:
3 out of 4 stars. Smaug’s comeuppance and the Battle of Five Armies yet to come. Stay tuned.

Bottom line: This film is a marginal improvement over the first Hobbit, but certainly isn’t on par with the LOTR trilogy. There are numerous departures from Tolkien’s book and some are incredibly intense, like Gandalf’s showdown with the Necromancer at Dol Guldur, while others are highly questionable, like the barrel scene. In the book and 1977 animated film, the barrel scene is a tranquil passage, but in the film the momentary respite from the incessant perils of their journey is transformed into a protracted action sequence storyboarded with an eye toward a possible video game release. Jackson gets a bit cutesy here, like Lucas did with most of the action scenes in his prequels. Still, other elements in the film are nearly transcendent, like the eponymous dragon, which is startlingly brought to life by Weta Digital and Benedict Cumberbatch’s eerily malevolent voiceover. Smaug definitely lives up to its billing as the movie’s deliciously duplicitous drake. So will the third Hobbit installment supersede the first two films? If wishes were dragons... Hopefully Jackson will bring the quality of the third film up to the level of the LOTR while bridging the gap between trilogies. When I tell you that Jackson needs to up his game, I’m not just blowing smoke.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13)

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Katniss is definitely one person I wouldn’t sneak up behind...especially if her bow & arrow were in hand.
That would be a quick way to spring a leak.

It’s snowing outside with Snow inside. “Convince me,” the prez says.

Stubborn and good with a bow...an accurate characterization of Katniss.

Peeta goes off script. A touching moment.

The occupation of District 12. Dark times ahead.
I pray that things never get so bad that this happens in our country.

Hoffman proposes a “wrinkle” for the Quarter Quell, and it’s a big one.

Finnick offers Katniss a sugar cube. Maybe if he’d offered chocolate he would’ve gotten a better result.

Mags teaches Katniss how to make a fishhook. Soon after, Katniss gives a clinic in archery.
Good scenes that play out much as they did in the book.

The mockingjay dress is quite a spectacle.
Is it scientifically feasible though?

Let the games begin.
A furious commencement to the competition here, just like in the book. But this cornucopia is surrounded by a noticeably different environment than the one in the first Games.

Hoffman orders a cannon prepared for Peeta’s apparent demise.

Haymich sends a spile...a refreshing gift.

A morphling’s sacrifice. What does it portend?

Attack of the jabberjays. Hitchcock would be proud.

Funny how Katniss never runs out of arrows or that they never spill out of her quiver.

The revolution begins. On their way to District 13 in time for the next movie.

Final analysis: excellent adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ superb second novel in
The Hunger Games series.
And just like the Harry Potter and Twilight series, Collins’ final book, Mockingjay, will be adapted into two movies.

Excellent directing by Francis Lawrence (
I Am Legend), and pitch perfect acting all around.

The film maximizes on all of the major events & emotional moments in the book while adding some new twists.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Deeper and darker than the first film. Has set the stage for a rousing finale.

Some have boldly averred that this sequel is The Empire Strikes Back of The Hunger Games series. Although far too loft an assertion, Catching Fire is a darker and deeper than the first film. A superb sequel that capitalizes on the solid groundwork established in the first film, the sequel lives up to its name by raising the stakes and tossing its characters into the crucible of political turmoil and civil unrest…and into yet another arena where even more slayings occur. The movie diligently follows Collins’ novel, which seemed to come readymade for the big screen, and who’s to say it wasn’t written with an eye toward a potential cinematic blockbuster. This is one instance where strict adherence to the source material was the wisest choice possible. If I were a big shot at Lionsgate, I’d rush the two remaining films into production immediately to ensure actor Lawrence’s continued involvement with the series. Something tells me that with all the Oscar attention Lawrence has been garnering lately projects like The Hunger Games will soon be a thing of the past for this emerging A-list actress.

Thor: The Dark World (PG-13)

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Directed by: Alan Taylor
Starring: Chris Hemsworth
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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With apologies to MC.

The dark elves...those are called goblins, right? Total
LOTR opening.

Loki wants his birthright, gets a dungeon instead.
Echoes of Jacob and Joseph’s stories in the Bible.

Thor vs. Goliath. Short fight.

Something about planet Vanaheim reminds me of the prototypical worlds seen on
Stargate SG1.

Portman enters the titular dark realm. Something tells me Amidala is no longer on Naboo.

Thor and Portman beam up. Welcome to Asgard.

Predator guy deactivates the Gungan shield protecting Odin’s fortress.
Sorry, mixed my movie metaphors on this one.

Stan Lee wants his shoe back.
Eh, he can afford a replacement.

Selvig streaks at Stonehenge. Thank God for pixel blurring.

Loki vs. four dark elves. Thor vs. Predator.
The fight schedule really fills up here…much like it did in The Avengers.

Thor hangs his hammer on a coatrack. Hilarious!

Convergence circles of the nine worlds are sweet.

Nice ending twist.
Or twist ending.

Final analysis: story took a long time to get going and wasn’t all that engaging once it did.

Certainly not the worst superhero movie ever, but far from spectacular.

The plot is a pastiche of
LOTR, Star Wars, Star Trek and even First Knight. Not much originality.
In the case of the latter film, I reference the shared scene of a launched flaming arrow igniting the pyre atop a floating raft.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not nearly as enjoyable as the first film, but not without its merits.

This film just rolled along and at movie’s end I was kinda’ like “is that it?” Though the movie is an enjoyable entertainment, I never once felt emotionally engaged, never once felt that our hero was in any real jeopardy and felt that the story, for all its high-end FX and well choreographed fight scenes, is just ho-hum. Hopkins gives the film appropriate gravitas, as he did in the first film, and Tom Hiddleston serves as an effective wild card element in the story. Hemsworth and Portman are exceedingly cardboard in their roles…a major disappointment. One other thought: London keeps getting picked on in sci-fi/superhero movies (Star Trek: Into Darkness, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, etc). Let’s pick on Miami or Dallas for a change. Poughkeepsie?

Ender's Game (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gavin Hood
Starring: Harrison Ford
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Been waiting a long time for this one. Earnestly praying that it lives up to Card’s amazing novel.
Amazing and award winning: Hugo and Nebula…the two highest honors in science fiction writing. Yes, the novel is that good! Possibly the finest example of military sci-fi ever written.

“This won’t hurt a bit.” Famous last words.

Don’t mess with Ender. The bullied becomes the bully.

Caesar, Napoleon...Ender?

Dap, the drill sergeant, is perfect.

“Your mother cheated, that’s why you look like a plumber.” Ha!
It’s been a lifelong ambition of mine to possess the ability to deliver, in the spur of the moment, a cut down this good.

Practice session in the battle room. Nice sequence.

Ender promoted to the army of misfit soldiers.

Bonzo is a bozo.
This kid is a great actor, though…Moises Arias. He played the memorable goof in The Kings of Summer earlier this year.

Lots of shots of characters peering through windows.
A visual motif that echoes John Ford’s use of doorways in The Searchers (1956).

Graduation day. The final simulation.

“Stay calm...shoot straight.” A nice T-shirt saying.

“The way we win matters.” What a line and what a scene.

Final analysis: a faithful adaptation of Card’s novel with gorgeous visuals and top-notch production values.

Rating:
3 1/2 out of 4 stars. For all of its action, the movie broaches some heavy-hitting ethical issues.

Though some will compare this movie to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (the book, not the campy 1997 movie directed by Paul Verhoeven), the connective tissue between both stories is fairly tenuous beyond a couple major themes and tropes. The acting is superb here and the training exercises and space battle sequences are utterly spellbinding. Universal themes of courage, teamwork and the meaning of honor are effectively woven into a narrative tapestry that somehow manages to cohere despite its surfeit of action sequences; certainly a breath of fresh air from most action oriented blockbusters these days, which consistently suffer from anemic screenplays. Exhilarated that Card’s superlative military sci-fi novel has been realized on the big screen at long last and relieved that director Gavin Hood didn’t mishandle such ingenious source material, I hope the author is as proud of this effort as I am.

The Lone Ranger (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Not to be confused with Arm & Hammer.

Kid looses a red balloon. Don’t worry, it’ll end up in France.
With much appreciation to Lamorisse’s masterwork.

Not so still life at the museum. Guess we’ll be seeing Stiller and Wilson in a minute.

A bird in a cage...nice symbolism.
But overdetermined?

Train wreck not nearly as exciting as the one in Super 8 or as realistic as the one in The Fugitive.

Hammer’s hat is as white as the spirit horse. Nice to see that Western tropes are still alive and well.

Nothing like waking up on top of the world. Good thing the LR doesn’t sleepwalk.

Feeding the rabid rabbits...the movie’s first silly scene.
It just doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie, which works very hard to establish the “reality” of its world.

Spirits for the spirit horse.
We’ve seen this gag in a thousand Westerns and it just never seems to get old.

Do horses really eat scorpions?

Nice montage during the prayer.

Moonlit arrows raining down...an amazing visual.
…but isn’t this something you’d expect to see in a sword and sorcery film and not a Western?

Ah, The William Tell Overture. Just in time for the rousing climax.

Final analysis: far better than I thought it would be, but ran twenty minutes too long.

Gorgeous Western vistas and solid performances all around from the diverse cast.
I don’t know how Verbinski roped Tom Wilkinson into doing this project, but I’m glad for the veteran actor’s presence here.

Probably didn’t score with audiences as well as expected because it was billed as being funnier than it is.
And adding Depp to the cast certainly validated such expectations.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. A solid effort, but will the LR ride again in a sequel?

Wow, I thought old Tonto would’ve fainted in the scorching desert by now!

Other than the above observations, it’s hard to say where this Walt Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer production went wrong. Perhaps it was a matter of timing or viewer interest in the subject itself—Westerns haven’t dominated at the box office for quite some time. Hammer doesn’t have the drawing power that Depp does, but Depp’s presence, by itself, should’ve ensured blockbuster status for this film. The movie’s soft-core action scenes and comedy-lite screenplay most likely added to the movie’s malaise and mediocre box office. Either way, Depp probably won’t be applying the face mud again any time soon. And considering what it’s composed of, that might not be such a bad thing.

The Wolverine (PG-13)

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Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Logan is in the box...River Kwai style.

How about some extra crispy Wolverine as an appetizer?

Guess it’s true what they say...a Wolverine can take down a bear.

Why does Wolvie need a sword? He already has six blades.
Ceremonial, I suppose.

A scrub in the tub, some grooming and there’s the Logan we know.

The old man’s adjustable bed is awesome! Who needs memory foam?

“Time for you to go back to your cave.” Them’s fightin’ words.

Many deaths at the funeral and an assist from the Asian Hawkeye.

Logan treats his bullet wounds on a bullet train.
Sometimes I just can’t help myself.

Fight atop the train is spectacular!

Mission to Mars it is.
Not the mediocre 2000 movie with Gary Sinise.

Beware the blonde with the acid breath.
Always good advice.

I knew the bit about the planted chopsticks.

I’d gladly chop a fallen tree for that smile.
Especially if I had Logan’s physical prowess.

Logan is a ronin--a good description of his existence.

Doing open-heart surgery on yourself...ouch.
Apparently Wolvie took an extension course in heart surgery before joining the X-Men.

“Is that all the men you brought?” Clint Eastwood would be proud.

Wolvie’s taking on more arrows than Boromir.

Did Poison Ivy cross over from the DC universe?

A giant adamantium samurai...now things are getting cartoony.
The big metal guy reminds me of the giant robot in the first Thor movie.

Final analysis: certainly not the worst superhero movie, but far from the best.

Greatly benefits from its Asian backdrop.
But does this locale work for a Wolverine film? What it gains in exotic appeal it looses in suitability for the character.

Honestly, the mid end credit bonus scene was more intriguing than the entire film.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Sets up well but has a weak ending. A soufflé with a few missing ingredients.

Although this film is unquestionably better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), it still doesn’t measure up to the quality of the X-Men films. As a standalone episode, this movie works just fine…“The One Where Wolvie Goes to Asia.” But where does this film land in Wolvie’s chronology? What major character revelations do we learn here? How many more X-Men movies will 20th Century Fox get out of Jackman since he’s not only getting older, but also more accomplished as an A-list leading man? Though a decent entry into the character’s personal back story, it’s equivalent to an average storyline in the comic books. Certainly the writers could’ve culled the comics for a more exciting, more cinematic story than this one.

Pacific Rim (PG-13)

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Directed by: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring: Steve Carell
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


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…with a microscopic plot.

Despite being a fan of del Toro’s earlier films, I’m dubious about this one.

A Transformers vs. Godzilla premise seems anemic and the trailer looks too similar to last year’s
Battleship.
In the end, this film might be a hairsbreadth better than Battleship. But that still isn’t saying much.

Jäger bot appears as a giant Ironman.
Correction: Iron Man.

Face-off over a fishing boat.
Whoever wins, I’m pretty sure the boat will lose.

“Wall of Life” is one of the daftest security measures ever conceived.

Why do the creatures attack cities? The entire population of a metropolis would only make one good meal?

Scientist “drifts” with a creature. The key to our survival?

A
BSG rip-off...digital vs. analog technology.
In the pilot film of Battlestar Galactica (2003) that sold the show to Sy-fy, Cylons hack into the computers aboard the Colonial Vipers and immobilize them. To stem the tide of the invasion, the colonists must pull the old, pre-computer Vipers out of mothballs in order to repel the Cylon advance.

Didn’t we just see the mass destruction of a city in Man of Steel?

Pearlman becomes baby’s first meal.

“Today we are canceling the apocalypse.” One of the most stilted lines I’ve heard in some time.
An awful line that made me grimace even when I first heard it in the trailer.

Elba’s entire speech is a cheap imitation of Aragorn’s in The Return of the King.

Wind sound effects underwater?
Well, I guess as long as we have explosions in outer space…

Final analysis: have we finally reached the threshold for the scale of a big budget film?
My fondest wish.

FX are amazing, especially underwater, but the story and characterizations are razor thin.

Rating:
2 out of 4 stars, which is generous for this significantly flawed creature feature.
It’s hard to know where to start with this one. This movie is a profound disappointment owing largely to the fact that del Toro is such an accomplished director with a brilliant sci-fi/fantasy/horror imagination. Very little of that imagination is evident here in what amounts to a contrived action first/story last near future monster vs. technology movie. Character development is flaccid and the dialog is downright abysmal. There isn’t a single aspect of this movie that’s compelling (save for the evocative title which is wasted on this mediocre affair). The movie is just an egregious waste of money and resources…and, worst of all, the audience’s time. The story earns 1 star and the FX garners 3 stars, so a rating of 2, which still seems too high, is fair I suppose.

Despicable Me 2 (PG)

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Directed by: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring: Steve Carell
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Horseshoe-shaped super magnet appears in the Arctic. A slick sci-fi teaser.

In a jam, Gru considers a new profession.
But before he can make that decision, he lands in a sticky situation. C’mon, that’s better than half the lines in the movie.

The last thing I wanted to see in this family film was a minion in the buff. Eww.

Bad date leads to a better prospect.

Chip hat...fashionable and delectable.
But how often do you need to purchase a new one?

Shouldn’t the mutant minions be able to chew through the cages?
A bit of a spoiler, but a question that exposes this contrived plot point.

Minion mock music videos are exceedingly silly.
But it made the kids laugh, so mission accomplished I suppose.

Final analysis: too many pratfalls by minions and too shallow a plot to be fully enjoyed.
All of the best scenes were spoiled in the trailer.

Too much time was spent in the mall, which is a hackneyed locus for action.

Rating:
2 out of 4 stars. Unremarkable sequel lacks the heart of the original. A Gru-some experience.

With the runaway success of the first film, it was a foregone conclusion that a Despicable sequel would ensue. That effort ended up being pretty safe by trying to turn former super villain Gru into a nice guy (which is far less compelling), adding a possible love interest for Gru (contrived and mushy for a kiddy pic) and amping up the minion mischief (a gimmick to garner more laughs from the target audience). Those preteen spectators won’t notice the decline in story quality, but everyone else in the audience will chalk this one up as mildly disappointing. And annoying: bee-doh, bee-doh, bee-doh…

Epic (PG)

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Directed by: Chris Wedge
Starring: Amanda Seyfried
May 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Termites holding hands...funny line.

What happens when a three-legged dog stops to scratch?
Depends on how fast it can scratch I suppose, but gravity can be so unforgiving.

The clash of Leafmen and Boggans is an exciting, creative fracas.

“Many leaves, one tree.”
Kinda’ New Agey. Have we slipped back into FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)?

Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Seems to be the movie’s mantra.

Fruit fly bit is hilarious!
The funniest gag in the movie.

Jedi-like jumping ability would come in handy.

Boggan fortress has a decided
LOTR look to it.

Moon bloom forestalled.

Final analysis: An imaginative animated fantasy that succeeds despite heavily borrowing from
Arrietty, LOTR & Avatar.
The scene where the scientist finally sees the little people is also reminiscent of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Despite not living up to its name, Epic is a fun-filled family film.

The movie has some decent moments, but the pastiche plot elements really detract from its potential. The animation is solid, but the story is sub-Pixar, which means it will appeal to its target audience but may be found wanting by adult audience members.

Monsters University (G)

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Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Billy Crystal
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Starry-eyed Mike on a field trip. A monster is created.

I sense trouble with Mile’s roommate.
Correction: Mike’s roommate…who seems a bit shifty.

Mike and Sulley meet.
A meet-cute of monstrous proportions. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

The dean is fittingly frightening.

What to do when dreams are dashed? Join OK.

Winners of the Scare Games get a Piston Cup?
The Games are the coolest part of the movie. The scene in the library is an instant classic.

Another field trip to the Big Leagues.

Don’s mustache is the Batman symbol.
A tip of the hat to the Caped Crusader by the Pixar artists?

Final analysis: doesn’t posses the unbridled creativity or emotional resonance of the original.
Nor the topical relevance of the original—the power shortages of the early 2000s.

First half is extremely gimmicky, but the plot settles in once the Games begin.

Rating:
2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Disney’s sequelitis is beginning to infect Pixar, which is a profound tragedy.

Still, when rival DreamWorks can only muster up
Turbo, Pixar is in no danger of being dethroned.

This prequel idea seemed better suited for a straight-to-DVD release rather than a theatrical one. Remember the frenetic sequence inside the factory in the first film, where rows of doors on an assembly line sail by with characters jumping on and through them? Nothing in the sequel even comes close to that level of sheer exhilaration. True, there are a few memorable and heartwarming scenes and it’s mildly entertaining seeing younger versions of Mike and Sulley, but this is a mostly mediocre movie. With Cars 2 and now Monster’s University, Pixar’s quality has clearly suffered at the hands of it’s Disney benefactors who will milk a property until the cows come home rather than producing riskier, original material…you know, the kind of stories that made Pixar great in the first place. It was bound to happen, I suppose, but it’s still sad to see.

World War Z (PG-13)

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Directed by: Marc Forster
Starring: Brad Pitt
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Hopefully the movie will be more watchable than the book is readable.
Written by Max Brooks, the book is an oral history of the outbreak and subsequent war on zombies. The “narrative” consists of one character interviewing eyewitnesses to zombie activities in various regions around the globe. I struggled to get through the first fifty pages at which point I promptly shelved the book, where it now sits nestled under a blanket of dust. Maybe since I killed and buried the book it will rise up some day in a mutated form and exact its revenge upon me. Actually, that would be more exciting than the book itself.

Drafting behind a trash truck...smart move.

12 seconds to zombie time.
A very heads-up move by Pitt’s character…amazing presence of mind amid the tumult.

The last place I’d want to be stuck in a zombie apocalypse...Newark.

“Movement is life.”
As opposed to staying in one place when you’re lost.

Roof-top rescue is heart-pounding.
…but was savagely spoiled in the trailer.

Speech on the plane about “serial killer” is utterly fascinating.
One of my favorite scenes in the film. Great dialog and a way of looking at the world that really broadsided me.

You’ve heard not to run with scissors. Same is true for a gun.

A memorable cameo by David Morse.
Clearly his character’s never heard of 1-800-DENTIST.

In the history of poorly timed phone calls...
This is a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the movie you know exactly when this occurs.

The tenth man of Jerusalem. Yep, we’re globe-trotting.

Zombie ladder is absolutely frightening.

You thought snakes on a plane were dangerous, how about the undead?

B wing...into the lion’s den.

Teeth chattering is a bit much.

Final analysis: An effective blend of
Contagion and I Am Legend.

Good action and a fairly airtight plot.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. Worth seeing if you can abide zombies.
Otherwise, there’s bound to be lighter fare in an adjoining theater.

This film will probably disappoint audience members expecting all-out action…this is a thinking person’s zombie film. The insult to injury here is that most of the movie’s action sequences are teased in the trailer, so the movie can seem familiar even while watching it for the first time (curse you movie trailers!). However, WWZ is a pleasant surprise because the plot is smart and taut and the performances are well-suited to the alternating exposition/action story line. Although classifying WWZ as a high art zombie film would be a misnomer, it will go down as a serious and scientifically feasible outbreak movie.

Check out my Twitter run for
#LearnFromMyMistake to read an amusing story of what happened to me at the theater the night I watched this movie.

Man of Steel (PG-13)

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Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Correction: Zack Snyder.

Far more epic opening than the original.
However, the prolog is far too protracted and showy for what it needed to be. Snyder tries too hard to dazzle here and during the climactic melee.

“I will find him!” And I thought Michael Shannon was frightening on Boardwalk Empire.

Really interesting way of conveying Clark’s heightened senses in school.
One of the best character moments in the film.

New Fortress of Solitude looks like it was designed by H. R. Geiger.
Correction: H.R. Giger.

The first flight sequences are breathtaking. Love the sonic boom sound.

Origin story is parsed out judiciously.

Notice the symbolism in the stain glass window.
Superman’s messianic attributes have been well documented in film studies. Also, in the moment, I couldn't remember if it’s stain or stained glass. I chose poorly. Past tense is correct.

Don’t tug on Superman’s cape and don’t mess with his mother.
With much gratitude to the late Jim Croce.

Small town skirmish similar to the one in Superman II...but on speed.

Woah...didn’t see that resolution to the final showdown coming.

Welcome to the planet. Clever turn of phrase.

Final analysis: Starts off strong but gets hokey by the end. Borrows too heavily from first two films.
Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980).

Costner and Crowe are superb, both lend the film a great deal of dignity and humanity.

Hans Zimmer’s score is excellent.

In the end, better than the last film, but not as enjoyable as Reeves’ early movies.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4. Will MOS soar or end up as box office Kryptonite?

Writers Goyer and Nolan have attempted to update Superman in a similar manner to what they accomplished in the Batman trilogy. Although the more realistic/less cartoony approach to the material seems to have worked well for the origin story and character development phases of the story, the decision to make the story darker and edgier has squelched the optimism and patriotism that were emblematic of the superhero and his quest from his inception in comic books. It sounds so obvious when stated, but Superman is a different type of hero than Batman and the re-envisioning of the man in tights here is a mostly mediocre affair. As for the movie’s star, Cavill is too earnest and emotionless to play Clark Kent…he’s even more introspective and dour than Bruce Wayne/Batman and brings nothing special to the roll. He certainly doesn’t possess the charm Christopher Reeve endued his Kent/Superman with. The climactic showdown, as shot by Snyder and his cameraman, is nauseating. The handheld camera is jerking back/forth, up/down so much that everything is one gigantic blur…and this is supposed to be thrilling? I had no idea when Superman was hitting or being hit. I’m sure the video game set can keep up with the action just fine, but I dare say a large segment of the audience needed a Dramamine when all was said and done. All told, Snyder’s Superman film is a valiant effort that just doesn’t have the same appeal that Reeve’s films, however cheesy they were at times, had in spades.

After Earth (PG-13)

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Jaden Smith
May 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Use of sails in the interior decorating is a nice visual motif.

Roll up iPad is amazing! I want one. Now.
This technology is like 5-10 years away, right?

Skydive scene is a thrill ride. A literal and figurative high point for the movie so far.
Unfortunately the story follows the same trajectory and speed as Jaden’s skydive, but is never able to pull up.

Nifty flight suit. Condorman would be envious.

Jaden is cutlass-less. Not good.

Jaden’s new assignment: climb to the top of Mt. Doom.

Straightforward survival story with decent adventure & a nice father/son subplot just in time for Father’s Day.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars. Next up: Man of Steel. Stay classy!

Although this film isn’t earth-shattering, it deserved a better fate than what it received. I’m not sure if it’s because the movie came too soon on the heels of Oblivion (another dystopian yarn), or if the survival story looked too tepid (and it is in many instances), or if audiences wanted to see more of elder Smith in the movie, or if news that Shyamalan helmed the project outright tanked it, but the stars definitely didn’t line up for this film. One of the poorest performing movies of Will Smith’s career, one wonders if he sacrificed too much to establish his son as a top billed movie star.

Star Trek Into Darkness (PG-13)

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Chris Pine
May 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

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Red trees...finally an alien-looking planet!
I first saw these trees in the trailer and was blown away by the striking visual of their vermillion branches and leaves against white trunks. What captivated me most as a fan of TOS was the “new life and new civilizations” part of the opening monolog. Unfortunately, we’ve had so many Earth-like climates/habitats in Sci-fi movies and TV shows that the same old desert, arctic, water, forest, jungle, etc., environments have become commonplace and stale. This world feels appropriately otherworldly and has brought back the thrill of deep space exploration that was so palpable in TOS.

Crossing universes...Spock appears to be on Mustafar.

What would Spock do? A good revelation.
WWSD? I wouldn’t want Spock’s cold logic deciding my fate.

Nice stand-alone mission with mud-skinned aliens. Reminds me of a TOS episode.

Nice pork chops, Pike. The 70s called and they want their sideburns back.

“You don’t respect the chair.” Great line and scene with Pike.
Bruce Greenwood is the elder statesman in the new Trek films. Pike possesses a dignity and decorum sorely lacking in the impetuous Kirk, whom he’s taken under his wing. Greenwood’s performance has really grounded Abrams’ first two Trek’s in profound ways.

80s action stars never die...they become Starfleet admirals.

Section 31. Any
DS9 fans out there?

The Mudd Incident. Another
TOS reference. Sulu tough as nails.

McCoy’s metaphors...funny scene.
This tweet comes before the previous one chronologically. Couldn’t think fast enough.

Exciting firefight with marauders and mystery combatant.

Superb stare down between Kirk and Harrison.
The tension here is palpable...two really good actors in a showdown. Superb dialog in this pivotal scene.

Red alert...gratuitous underwear scene.

Awesome Gorn reference. Torpedo planet looks like it’s on loan from Ridey Scott’s
Prometheus.
Dr. McCoy is such a Southern gentleman. Not sure I’d be such a gentleman if I were all alone on a planet with Carol Marcus (Alice Eve).

Notice the shape of the scrap on Kirk’s cheek bone.
The first of many instances of Manly Thumbs vs. Tiny Keypad. Score 1 for the keypad. “Scrap” should be “scrape.”

Admiral Robo’s ship looks like it comes from TNG.

Scotty’s sprint and debris field, good stuff.
My favorite movie line of the year is when Scotty tells Kirk to give him a minute. Impeccable delivery!

Pair o Spock’s redux. Pivotal scene.
It’s always nice to see an old friend.

“Shall we begin?” Not nearly as good as “Go ahead, make my day,” but It’ll do.
Ah, that voice! Just reading the words and I can hear Cumberbatch’s rich baritone voice echoing in my head.

Finally...seatbelts on the Enterprise.
It only took what...48 years?

For film studies buffs, notice the use of plexiglass in crucial scenes throughout.
Plexiglass or transparent aluminum?

A tribble saves the day!

Ah, the fistfight we’ve been waiting for all movie.

5 year mission. Does that mean a new TV show? Wishful thinking, I’m sure.

Rating: 3 out of 4. Same as last one. Perhaps a tad better due to Cumberbatch’s performance. Next up...After Earth with Will Smith.

Final Thoughts/Parting Shots: Okay, there’s so much to say, good and bad, in an analysis of this film, but I don’t want to ramble on like I did for J.J’s first Trek. First off, it’s very sad to say goodbye to one of our heroes in this film. The admiral’s presence will be sorely missed in future Treks. Most of the FX are stellar, but the matte shot of the Klingon moon (Praxis?) is a bit dicey. Some nitpicks: Is it really that short of a warp journey to get from Kronos to Earth (the Enterprise only travels at warp speed for a few minutes before Adm. Marcus’ ship blasts the Enterprise out of warp, depositing it near the moon)? If so, such proximity to the enemy home world would be worrisome… for both galactic superpowers, one would presume. Next, is Earth’s gravitational pull so great that it could draw the Enterprise all the way from the moon into its atmosphere? Seems a bit implausible. I could go on and on regarding the movie’s inconsistencies (like the can of Regulan bloodworms that was opened up by the subplot involving Khan’s “fountain of youth” blood), but I’ll refrain. My biggest snafu is revealing Harrison as Khan. Why is it necessary? Is Harrison any less compelling a villain, as played by Cumberbatch, than Khan? Since there’s so little back story and character development for the villain wouldn’t he work as either Harrison or Khan? And if so, doesn’t that mean the decision to make the villain Khan a contrived one? A gimmick to boost ratings? Some may see this choice as a way of introducing a new generation to the colorful TOS antagonist, but others might see it as needlessly tampering with a classic villain. Speaking of Cumberbatch as Khan, I must admit that I’m not as blown away by his performance as I thought I’d be (I know, I’m probably the only person on the planet who feels this way). One needs look no further than Sherlock to see just how brilliant and commanding an actor Cumberbatch is. Here, due to limited screen time and an underdeveloped character, the actor is effective but a far cry from phenomenal. Again, I might be alone in this assertion, but I feel like Abrams could’ve gotten more out of Cumberbatch…that there was an extra gear the actor could’ve shifted into to make his performance even more memorable. Be that as it may, Into Darkness is a fine follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek, and has expanded the series and taken it into appropriately darker territory. Bring on the next film…Star Trek To the Light Side. Lens flares included.

The Amaz